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Professor takes ‘pain-free’ journey as the School’s first bridging fellow

Professor Takes Pain-Free Journey as the School’s First Bridging Fellow

A decade ago, debilitating back pain led Doug Guiffrida to explore mindfulness practice for relief. He began seeing results. Encouraged by the progress he experienced, Guiffrida set out to learn more about mindfulness and other mind-body approaches to healing. In this process, he found the work of Dr. John Sarno, a physician who discovered a condition he termed “Tension Myositis Syndrome” (TMS) to diagnose people who suffered from chronic pain. Despite being formally diagnosed through an MRI with a herniated disk, Guiffrida was able to heal his pain permanently using a combination of mindfulness and Sarno’s TMS therapy. Today, he lives pain-free and is determined to help others in chronic pain who have found little or no relief from traditional medical treatments.

A licensed mental health counselor and a professor at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, Guiffrida was selected to take part in the Bridging Fellowship program. This is a unique opportunity for scholars to step away from their area of expertise to explore work in other disciplines. The program is a University-wide effort that has supported members of the University faculties in the interdisciplinary study since the 1980s. Typically, the University has no more than four Bridging Fellows in any given academic year. In Guiffrida’s case, the “bridge” was to—and from—the Medical Center during the fall 2017 semester.

For Guiffrida, this new academic adventure allowed him to get an up-close look at a growing, powerful mind-body approach to healing chronic pain that included integrating an emotionally-focused therapy called “Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy” (ISTDP). The fellowship presented him with the opportunity to study under and collaborate with Dr. William Watson, an associate professor in psychiatry and neurology at the Medical Center, who uses ISTDP to treat people suffering from psychogenic seizures. He also developed and conducted research, with graduate student Jennifer Farah, on a chronic pain group at East Ridge Family Medicine. In addition, the fellowship provided an opportunity for Guiffrida to start a private practice in which he has successfully treated patients suffering from other chronic pain conditions, such as migraine headaches and fibromyalgia.

According to Guiffrida, his mind-body treatment includes a combination of mindfulness practice, psycho-education about the mind/body connections, and emotionally-focused psychotherapy rooted in the principles of ISTDP.

In addition to his work with patients in his private practice, Guiffrida has looked to the support of Warner PhD students Scott McGuinness, Rachel Carter, and Daniel Miller; and Jennifer Farah, who is a clinical social worker at East Ridge Family Medicine, in developing, leading, and studying two chronic pain groups. The research team continues to examine qualitative data from their study with hopes of publishing their research findings in a counseling journal.

The following Q&A is an edited interview with Guiffrida. Here he talks about his reasons for delving into mind-body practice, his achievements through the Bridging Fellowship, and what’s next.

Prior to this fellowship, what was your professional/academic involvement with mind-body medicine?
Initially, I began a mindfulness practice to help with my own pain when I was diagnosed with a herniated disc years ago. In addition to helping with chronic pain, I realized that mindfulness was also useful in training new counselors to effectively work with their clients. I started to incorporate mindfulness into the classes that I taught here at Warner and then began studying students’ experiences with learning mindfulness as part of their counseling training.  

Additionally, as part of a counseling course on spirituality, religion, and healing that I co-teach with Professors Daniel Linnenberg, Karen Mackie, and Martin Lynch, I’ve been able to teach counseling students Dr. Sarno’s mind-body approach as part of the course’s section on healing. It was only recently, through the fellowship, that I began incorporating more emotionally-focused therapy into my teaching and clinical practice. 

What compelled you to study this as part of a Bridging Fellowship?
Since becoming cured myself through this approach about 12 years ago, I’ve had a strong passion to learn more about mind-body medicine in order to help others like me. 

How does it feel to be the first Warner School faculty member to participate as a Bridging Fellow?
The meaningful part for me has been being able to study this mind-body approach. I’ve learned an incredibly powerful approach to healing from local experts like Dr. William Watson at Strong.  Through him, I was able to meet and learn from other national and international experts in this area, including Drs. Howard Schubiner and Alan Abbas. Their work has been incredibly influential to me.

What are some of your most significant achievements through the fellowship?
The most significant achievement has been being able to help very sick people get better. I’ve learned that this mind-body approach is something that can cure people of things that mainstream medicine cannot.

How was your experience of crossing over into the disciplinary field of medicine?
Twelve years ago when I would talk with medical professionals about Sarno and other related mind-body approaches, I would get a lot of blank stares. What was so surprising and encouraging to me is how open many people in the medical community are to mind-body approaches now.  I get a lot of patient referrals from physicians.

Why is it so important to promote the use of mind-body approach in the medical field?
It gives people who haven’t been helped by traditional forms of medicine another option. It’s important to note, however, that this approach is usually the last stop for people after they have been thoroughly examined for physical issues and treated unsuccessfully by mainstream medicine.

What type of teaching and research opportunities did your Bridging Fellowship create for both yourself and others at Warner?  
I’ve been doing a study on two separate pain groups—one at East Ridge Family Medicine that met during my fellowship, and one that I continue to run with my co-leader Jennifer Farah (a Warner doctoral student) at Dr. Pamela Grover’s office. I also have four other doctoral students working with me on the qualitative research, so this has created opportunities for others at Warner to conduct research and analyze data.

How will this experience help to enhance the quality of courses that you teach in counseling?
I’ve already taught a section on ISTDP in one of my courses, and look forward to incorporating the knowledge that I gained from this fellowship to enhance a number of my courses, including EDE 423: Religion, Spirituality, and Healing in Counseling, EDU 457: Counseling and Theory Practice I, EDU 553: Counselor Supervision, and EDU 460: Counseling Theory and Practice 2.

What trends are you beginning to see in terms of your research?
In an effort to look beyond whether or not this mind-body approach works, we are using qualitative research to look at the experiences of participants as well as their perceptions of the conditions under which the approach has been helpful or not helpful.  Some patients may benefit from this approach while others may not. For example, some conditions impacting one’s ability to get better can range from how much they understand and believe in this approach, to the connections that they are able to make between events in their lives and physical symptoms.

Do you have recommendations for other professionals considering alternative approaches to healing chronic pain? 
I would recommend Dr. Howard Schubiner’s book Unlearn Your Pain and any books by Dr. John Sarno. There’s also a documentary called All the Rage that examines the connections between emotions and health.

How do you convince people who don’t buy into this mind-body approach?
You can’t convince them, and I don’t try to. When prospective patients call me, I refer them to several books and videos to look at before making an appointment with me to make sure the approach is right for them.  I’ve gotten several calls from concerned family members who want to make an appointment for their loved ones, but without buy-in from the patient, the approach won’t work. 

What is your best advice for colleagues considering applying for a Bridging Fellowship?
It’s opened me up to a whole new world of possibilities for healing chronic pain. We may have limited access to some resources in Rochester, but in my case I got lucky. I was able to work directly with experts at URMC who are on the cutting edge of mind-body medicine. 

How will the fellowship support future growth for you?
While I continue to study and teach on my prior research areas of college student retention and clinical supervision, this experience has opened up a whole new professional trajectory for me. 

What are you planning for the future?
We are currently in the planning stages of creating a new 15-credit advanced certificate at the University that would focus on mind-body approaches to healing and wellness. For people who are already trained and licensed in healthcare, this new interdisciplinary program, offered in collaboration with the Warner School and Medical Center, would provide a broader exposure to mind-body medicine.  

I also plan to apply for funding to support future research in this area; specifically, I am interested studying the potential of mind-body medicine as one step in solving the country’s opioid crisis.  Nearly all of my patients are on large doses of opioids when they begin seeing me, and most have been able to reduce or completely eliminate their use after treatment. 

Learn more about the University’s Bridging Fellowship program.