Therapy with Max Maisel, PhD

Dr. Max Maisel is a Clinical Psychologist in Sherman Oaks, CA who specializes in working with young adult and adult clients facing anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and overwhelming stress. He utilizes a number of different modalities, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), and Interpersonal Therapy (IPT), to tailor treatment to each individual client. Dr. Maisel is also passionate about providing training and supervision for psychology interns and postdoctoral fellows.

We asked Dr. Maisel more about his work with clients and his guiding philosophies on therapy.

Dr. Maisel’s background and personal life

How did you decide to become a therapist?

I grew up in a family of medical doctors, and I was always fascinated by the idea that healing and growth was possible through simply changing the way we respond to our thoughts and feelings. The primary reason why I chose to specialize in treating anxiety disorders is because I know first hand how much suffering it can cause.

In my early twenties, I experienced severe panic attacks and constant worry. In fact, I came very close to dropping out of my first year of graduate school. Through my own therapy, I learned how to drastically change my relationship with anxiety and regain control of my life. I haven’t had a panic attack in years. Helping people overcome their own struggles with anxiety is the most meaningful work I can think of.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I am married and love traveling the world and practicing Brazilian jiu jitsu in my spare time. I have two cats and a blue tongue skink, which usually makes for a great conversation starter. I deeply value multiculturalism and celebrate diversity, and I welcome people from all backgrounds and identities with respect and openness. I also consider myself a therapy nerd, and spend too much time listening to podcasts about various aspects of mental health (three of my favorites are The OCD Stories, Your Anxiety Toolkit, and Bad Therapy) and looking through the latest research findings on Google Scholar.

Dr. Maisel’s specialties and therapy philosophies

What clientele do you work with most frequently?

I love working with people who have anxiety disorders and OCD. I am passionate about this work because there are tried and true principles of treatment that we know can help people reclaim their lives back from these conditions. The work isn't always easy, but it's so gratifying to see my clients empower themselves by learning how to stare down the things that they fear the most in order to rebuild a life that is truly worth living.

Can you tell us more about your specialty in anxiety?

When people suffer from anxiety disorders, their brain’s natural instinct to survive is on overdrive. This can lead to all sorts of uncomfortable internal experiences, such as muscle tension, a sense of dread, panic attacks, and constant worry.

Anxiety treatment helps to re-wire our brains to learn that despite a faulty flight-or-fight response, there is no true danger.

This is done by challenging unhelpful and inaccurate thinking patterns, by learning how to activate the body’s natural relaxation response, and by gently facing our fears instead of staying stuck in insidious cycles of avoidance.

Can you tell us more about your specialty working with clients with OCD?

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by intrusive and unwanted thoughts, images, or urges (called obsessions) accompanied by behaviors people engage in to feel better or protect themselves (called rituals or compulsions).

In OCD treatment, we learn that it is not the thought itself that matters, but our response to the thought. When people treat their unwanted thoughts as important or meaningful, their minds will become increasingly reactive, leading to even more of the very thoughts they were trying to prevent!

OCD is very tricky disorder, where what “feels” like the right thing to do actually makes the OCD so much worse. Treatment is all about learning how to challenge the OCD by accepting intrusive thoughts and facing our fears without engaging in compulsions. It’s hard work but incredibly powerful.

Can you tell us about your work with college students/young adults?

While college is a wonderful time for growth and learning, it is also a perfect storm for mental health issues to emerge. Not only are university students under constant academic and social pressures, but they may be far away from primary support networks and at an age where many mental health issues first begin emerging.

It can’t be emphasized enough how important it is for college students to check-in with themselves occasionally (e.g. asking themself “how am I REALLY doing this week?”) and to seek help if and when they need it.

Learning how to deal with emotions and stress in a healthy way can be key to making the most out of one’s college experience.

Therapy sessions with Dr. Maisel

What will our first session together be like? What happens in ongoing sessions?

During our first session, we’ll spend the time getting to know each other and discussing what you hope to get out of therapy. Some people like to identity specific goals that they would like to focus our work on, and other prefer a less structured approach. As we talk, I’ll ask you some follow-up questions to make sure I’m conducting a thorough assessment of your presenting concerns and history. In later sessions, we’ll explore the factors that are at the root of your distress and collaborate together on concrete changes you can make to live a more rich and meaningful life.

How long do clients typically see you for?

It really depends! For some people, several sessions is all they need to learn the skills and strategies to accomplish their goals. Other people benefit from seeing me for years. On average, people begin feeling much better after several months of therapy, and we are able to wrap our work up after about 6 months.

Are there any books you often recommend to clients?

One of my all time favorites is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. It highlights how the root of human suffering is actually our constant striving for happiness. It sounds counter-intuitive, because it is! Happiness comes and goes, and when we devote our time and energy to attaining happiness, we will inevitably experience disappointment when life eventually throws us a curve ball.

True peace and contentment is acceptance of the present moment (including ourselves), and we can avoid falling into the happiness trap by spending our time and energy on building a rich and meaningful life.

Do you assign “homework” between sessions?

Since you will only be seeing me for 50 minutes once per week, much of the change will happen during the space in-between sessions.

That being said, I don’t like to use the term “homework” because my inner child associates it with activities that people do not want to do. In-between session assignments always work best when developed collaboratively with my clients, and they are usually directly based off of what we talked about in session that week. Potential examples of activities include practicing ways to challenge negative thinking patterns, learning how to monitor and track particularly distressing symptoms, implementing various mindfulness practices, and developing a strategic approach to overcome avoidance.

How do you help ensure I'm making progress in therapy?

I take a two-pronged approach to ensure my clients are making progress. First, my clients and I will frequently check-in about how they feel therapy is going and any significant changes they have made. Second, I often give my clients brief assessment questionnaires that can measure various symptoms (e.g. symptoms of anxiety, depression, OCD) and show us how severe they are compared to a baseline score. As clients take these measures throughout our work together, we can track the improvement of their symptoms over time.

How can I prepare for our first session?

Having an idea of what you want to get out of therapy can be a really helpful place to start! I have found that people who come in with several specific goals tend to get more out of therapy than people who come in with no specific concern they want to work on. If you struggle with anxiety or OCD specifically, it can be helpful to reflect on the specific ways your struggles have been affecting your life. Reflect on what you have given up to appease the anxiety or OCD, including triggers that you avoid or behaviors that you do in order to calm yourself.

Why should I seek therapy, rather than turning to my partner, friends, or other loved ones?

It’s great to have the support of loved ones! However, there are many reasons why licensed therapists may be preferable in certain circumstances including:

Visit Dr. Maisel’s profile to watch his introductory video, read more, and book an initial call!