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Gecko Care: When is Worry Too Much Worry?

As an experienced gecko keeper and “gecko forum junkie” I respond to many posts from people who have just gotten their first gecko, or are planning to get their first gecko.  They understand that taking care of  a living creature is an important responsibility.  For the most part, they’re concerned about providing the proper care, about figuring out which of the conflicting instructions they see online and from pet stores is correct, and about interpreting their gecko’s behavior correctly.  This all makes sense: with any new undertaking there are concerns about “getting it right”.  The learning curve is steep and usually, with a bit of guidance, the “newbie” gets more comfortable and figures out what to do.
Lately, though, there seems to be an increasing number of posts from people who are taking worry to new heights.  These posts fall into two different categories.  (The examples given below are based on actual posts but are not directly taken from any actual posts).  Some people appear to be micro-managing their gecko care:
       “My gecko usually comes out of its hide at 7 in the evening, but for the last 2 days it’s been coming out at 7:05.”
Other people seem to be getting more and more upset about whether or not they’re caring for their gecko appropriately:
      “I’m so afraid that my gecko may die that I think I’d better take it back to the pet store.”
Something was telling me that these concerns go above and beyond typical new keeper worries. In an effort to get a handle on what actually may be going on, I consulted my daughter, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety.  What follows is a discussion between us that evolved through questions and answers:
 
What are signs that worrying about how well your new gecko is cared for represent a problematic level of anxiety?
 
It’s perfectly normal to experience some amount of anxiety and worry after welcoming a new gecko. However, if you experience one or more of the following, it may be a sign that your anxiety about your gecko has reached a level that is excessive or problematic:
  • Your worries about your gecko persist long after your gecko has settled into your home. Although many people feel worried shortly after acquiring a new gecko, if you are still worrying at the same frequency and intensity a month later, it may be a sign that you are experiencing problematic anxiety.
  • Your worries about your gecko feel difficult to control, in the sense that it’s hard to stop worrying about your gecko once you start, or your worries about your gecko frequently arise when you are trying to focus on other things.
  • You experience the same worries about your gecko repeatedly despite reassurance from your veterinarian, gecko care resources, the online gecko community, etc. that there is no cause for concern.
  • You spend a great deal of time each day focused on your worries about your gecko.
  •  Your worries about your gecko interfere with other important aspects of your life; for example, your worries make it difficult for you to focus on work or to be mentally present when spending time with loved ones, or you avoid work, daily errands, or social activities due to anxiety about your gecko.
  • Your worries about your gecko cause you a significant amount of distress on a day to day basis.
 
Those do sound like pretty extreme reactions.  Is explaining to people that these behaviors are over the top enough to get them to be more reasonable?
 
It’s unlikely that a person will change their behavior if they don’t first recognize that it’s excessive, so in some cases explaining that the behavior is over the top may be a helpful first step. For folks with very mild anxiety, that alone might be enough to get them to make a change. However, individuals with problematic levels of anxiety may recognize that their anxious thoughts and behaviors are excessive but still struggle to change without receiving more support or tools to enable them to do so. Also, some people have limited insight into their own anxiety and may be resistant to hearing the message that their behavior is over the top. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that these people will make strides toward decreasing their anxiety until they are willing and able to recognize the problem and are somewhat motivated to make a change.
 
If someone isn’t willing to admit they have a problem, how do you recommend we deal with them expressing their worries?
 
I don’t think there’s one single answer to this; it depends on your relationship with the person, your level of patience, and what you’re comfortable with. Your options include making general supportive statements (e.g., “I’m sorry this is so stressful for you!”), gently pointing out again that their worries seem to be very distressing to them and encouraging them to seek treatment, and declining to discuss the topic further if you find that you’re frequently having the same kind of conversations about their worries over and over again.
People with problematic levels of anxiety often seek reassurance about their worries; be aware that the relief these individuals get from reassurance tends to be short-lived, so if you get into the habit of providing reassurance, you may find that this leads to more and more requests for reassurance. Reassurance may feed the person’s anxiety rather than alleviating it in a lasting way. I would also caution against getting into a protracted battle with the person about whether their anxiety is problematic, as this is unlikely to be effective in changing their mind.
 
So let’s say the person has decided to get treatment for anxiety.  Can you give some very general guidelines about how to start looking for a therapist and what kind of therapist to look for, understanding that there probably isn’t one simple answer that would fit everyone?
 
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is by far the most effective type of psychotherapy for anxiety disorders, so I would suggest looking for a therapist who provides this type of treatment. Some good places to start looking for a CBT therapist include the find a therapist directories on the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies website (https://www.findcbt.org/FAT/) and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America website (https://members.adaa.org/page/FATMain?). Another great place to look for a therapist is Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists); a huge number of therapists advertise their services on this site, and there’s a feature that allows you to filter results by the type of therapy if you’d like to search specifically for a CBT provider. Other options include searching for a therapist through your insurance company or asking for referrals from your primary care provider (though there’s no guarantee the therapist you find through those routes will be trained in CBT). 

Many prospective clients find that they have to contact a handful of therapists in order to find one who gets back to them and has availability, so it’s a good idea to cast a wide net here and to try not to get discouraged if it doesn’t work out with the first provider you reach out to. 
Some factors you may want to pay attention to in the early stages of therapy are whether your therapist seems like someone you feel comfortable opening up to and someone with whom you can have a good working relationship. Occasionally clients find that a therapist’s style or personality isn’t a good fit for them, in which case it probably makes sense to switch providers. Also, once your therapist has a sense of what you want to address in treatment, I would pay attention to whether they seem to be offering you strategies or techniques to help you deal with anxiety or whether they are asking you to talk about your life each week in a more open ended, non-directive way for much of each session. If it’s the latter, your therapist may not really be providing CBT.
I also want to mention that therapy is not the only effective treatment for anxiety disorders; certain antidepressant medications such as Prozac, Lexapro, and others are also effective in treating anxiety disorders. If you’re interested in pursuing medication treatment, your best bet is to talk to your primary care provider about prescribing you medication or referring you to a psychiatrist who can do so.
 
What kind of things might happen in anxiety treatment?
 
The goal of CBT is to teach you skills to help you manage anxiety so that you can ultimately use these skills independently and “be your own therapist.” The treatment is based on the idea that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected and influence one another, so by changing the way you think and act, you can decrease feelings of anxiety. Treatment typically involves the following components:

1) Psychoeducation: giving you some more information about anxiety and factors that cause and maintain it
2) Cognitive restructuring: learning to identify your anxious thoughts, and then taking a critical look at the facts to determine whether these thoughts are accurate, rather than assuming your thoughts are true. 
3) Exposure/changing anxious behaviors: practicing facing your fears by doing the things that make you anxious instead of avoiding them and by dropping behaviors that make you feel better in the short-term but make your anxiety worse in the long run (e.g., reassurance seeking, checking on your gecko excessively, doing excessive research about your gecko’s health). The idea here is that when you repeatedly do things that make you feel anxious without trying to escape or control those feelings, over time your anxiety lessens and it becomes easier to do the things you fear. This also provides you with critical information about the true consequences of facing your fears; many people find that they anticipate negative consequences that don’t actually come to pass. This part of treatment can sound daunting, but your therapist will work with you to take this one step at a time and proceed at a pace that feels manageable to you.
4) Some treatments also involve mindfulness or relaxation practice.
CBT diagram from Wikipedia
 
CBT is typically a short-term treatment. In most sessions, you can expect to learn a new skill and practice it together with your therapist, do some independent practice of the same skill on your own between sessions, discuss how this went and troubleshoot as needed in the next session, and then learn a new skill.
 
Can people get over this anxiety?  What do they have to do to get over it?
 
Yes, you can absolutely get over this anxiety, though it will involve some effort on your part; it takes more than simply attending therapy sessions to alleviate anxiety. To conquer this anxiety, you need to be open to changing your thoughts and behaviors and you need to regularly practice the therapy skills, both in the therapy sessions and outside of sessions in your real life. If you do so, you are likely to experience a significant reduction in anxiety and to feel better equipped to respond effectively to anxious thoughts and feelings when they arise.
 
Thanks so much for all this information.  For anyone reading this article and thinking “this sounds a lot like me”, please consider following the advice given to make life easier and more fulfilling for you and for your gecko.
 
Eliora Porter, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in the Boston area. She specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy for adults with anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other related conditions. Dr. Porter received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She completed her predoctoral internship at the VA Maryland Health Care System and completed her postdoctoral training at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University.

What do you think?

Written by Aliza

Aliza is a home care speech therapist living in the Boston area. She successfully bred a variety of gecko species between 2005 and 2017. She currently cares for a large number of geckos as well as a few frogs and bearded dragons. Other interests which she pursues in her copious free time include work in ceramics, practicing aikido and surfing the internet.

2 Comments

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  1. During this prolonged pandemic, I think many people are anxious to start with, and while taking on a new pet can help with the stress, it can also increase it. I’ve also noticed this on the groups and forums I belong to. Learning to recognize there is a problem is helpful, and once recognized can be dealt with. Thanks for the detailed info. I hope it will be of help to many gecko (& other pet) keepers.

  2. What a great article. I live with anxiety and depression and have done so for many years.

    CBT is a great starting point to help in managing anxiety. It’s worked well for me. I was referred to a mental health support team via my doctor.

    CBT consists of skills that you can use every day or when required.

    I found this book a great help.

    MJV Fennell Overcoming low Self-Esteem

    It’s a very easy book to get hold of.

    I did worry to much about my Gecko at first but by using CBT techniques and reaching out for advice from the geckoforums.net I was able to actually spend time with my Gecko as a fun and relaxing time for us both, as it should slwsys be.

    So once again thanks for this great article.

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