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Maria Kostyanaya is a provisionally registered psychologist currently working for Queensland Corrective Services in Brisbane and at the Queensland Psychology Clinic in Ipswich (Australia). She is also a contributing editor at The Neuropsychotherapist and is on the lookout for for researchers with insights to offer in the field of neuroscience-informed psychotherapy.

Maria received her first specialist degree in Clinical Psychology from Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU) in 2010 and completed her Master of Counselling degree at the University of Queensland in 2014. While at MSU, she won the best thesis award in 2010 for her research thesis on attitudes towards death among persons with diminished responsibility who have committed violent crimes. Following her migration to Australia, she engaged in a series of works on the comparative analysis of Russian psychology and neuropsychotherapy. Between the two degrees, in 2011, Maria commenced her PhD in Social Psychology at the Australian National University. This marked a turning point in her professional career as she came to realize that her primary interest lay in clinical research and practice.

Maria has worked in clinical, forensic, and private practice settings in Moscow, Canberra, and Brisbane. In Russia, Maria specialised in working with oncology patients and their relatives on the nationwide counselling hotline Proyekt So-Deystrviye (“Co-Operation Project”) as well as conducting psychological assessments of remand prisoners at Serbsky State Scientific Center for Social and Forensic Psychiatry. In Australia, Maria has gained experience with AOD (alcohol and other drugs) users and is expanding her knowledge of forensic psychology. Her most recent work is focused on the theory and practice of neuroscience-informed psychotherapy and existential therapies (primarily logotherapy) in a correctional environment. Among her other interests she lists terror management theory and the application of art in psychotherapeutic settings.

NPT:    Can you tell us a little about the theories and philosophies that have most impacted your work?

MK:    I became interested in existential psychology following a mandatory course on philosophy I undertook during my second year of studies at MSU. As Russian education is rather fundamental, part of this course required students to read and critically analyse original works of various philosophers, from Aristotle through to Karl Popper and modern-day schools of thought. It was then that I discovered logotherapy, a theory of psychotherapy introduced by Victor Frankl in 1946 in Man’s Search for Meaning, which resonated so much with what I thought psychotherapy should be about . . . to help clients find meaning in their struggling and grow from their experiences. The works of Sartre and Heidegger, and more recent research within the framework of terror management theory, instigated my fascination with the phenomenon of death, which subsequently developed into my thesis on the perception of death among remand prisoners with mental pathology who have committed violent crimes.

During my studies at the University of Queensland I was introduced to neuropsychotherapy by Dr Pieter Rossouw. I was especially drawn to its thorough scientific base and applicability across a wide variety of conditions. I see neuropsychotherapy as an overarching framework that encompasses a wide range of psychotherapeutic modalities applied in a timely manner and according to basic principles of neuroscience. While my work in corrective services is generally restricted to risk and criminogenic needs assessment, I still try to adapt neuropsychotherapeutic strategies to this environment and implement them on a daily basis. In private practice I have much greater freedom to use neuropsychotherapy to the full extent.

I am hoping to get an opportunity to undertake a more comprehensive study of the neuropsychotherapeutic approach . . . to corroborate its evidence base and make it a global agenda.

NPT:    What are you currently working on?

MK:    I have always tried to work concurrently in actual psychotherapeutic work and psychological research.

I am currently doing the 4+2 internship program, an alternative to the Master of Psychology program in Australia that some practitioners undertake to get general registration. At the moment I am focusing on case studies and preparation for the National Psychological Exam and other AHPRA (Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency) related paperwork so that I can apply for my general registration as a psychologist. I am getting the required client hours during five days of work per week at a high security prison in Brisbane and a few hours per week I spend on supervision and general practice at the Queensland Psychology Clinic in Ipswich.

I am also in the process of writing an article with Dr Geraldene Mackay, a clinical social worker and accredited mental health social worker based in Victoria, Australia, on the application of neuropsychotherapeutic strategies in aged care facilities and corrective services. This idea came about following our meeting at the International Conference of Neuropsychotherapy in Brisbane this year.

NPT:    If you could impart one thing to a new psychotherapist, what would it be?

MK:    There are so many important messages I have learned about and developed in my work that I would like to share with other professionals; however, there is one that stands out for me at the moment . . . and that is to be always open to new ideas.

With this in mind, I would advise new psychotherapists to be creative in their work and open to exploring new, even unconventional, approaches and techniques. The contemporary psychological field seems too restricted to a cognitive–behavioural framework, which I consider a manifestation of extreme reductionism. I realise that there is always a battle between the need to discover an overarching mechanism to explain the human condition and finding alternative solutions; this is why we should never be satisfied with one particular explanation because it inhibits our evolution as therapists. I see each client as a discrete universe that requires a special key to unlock, and this is something that cannot be simply found in a text book. It is important to have a broad knowledge of psychotherapeutic approaches and to be able to tailor them accordingly and not impose any of your preferences based on your particular skill set. Never stop learning and getting out of your comfort zone.

NPT:    How has an understanding of neurobiology helped you in your practice?

MK:     My first thorough encounter with neurobiology happened during my year of preparation for the biology entrance exam to be accepted at MSU. Funnily enough, I still keep those worn-down notebooks and go back to them at times. I often joke that I will be using them till the day I die. Whilst psychology is not a formal part of medical science, it is hard not to admit that it is indeed an adjacent discipline.

First of all, it is extremely important for a psychologist to be able to recognise pathological malfunction and make appropriate referrals to allied professionals in a timely manner. Here general knowledge of biology and neurobiology is without doubt a necessity. Secondly, psychoeducation is an essential part of most contemporary psychotherapeutic practices, and introducing neurobiology to clients is a great tool for normalizing their experience and most importantly creating hope for a better future. Further, a neurobiological approach can also help psychologists combat their biases and unconstructive countertransference and at the same time teach them to wait patiently for changes that in most cases take significant time to emerge.

I find it almost amusing how attentive my clients become (both in private practice and corrective services) when we start talking about the human brain and its functioning: it depersonalizes the condition and makes it so much easier for practitioners and clients alike to work together. Not surprisingly, those conversations can be adjusted across the lifespan, and I’ve found that even very young clients adopt neurobiological language to express themselves. I sometimes use this language with psychotic clients too, which works quite well, and which I also partially attribute to the enhanced reputation of a professional who knows something about the brain. Other than that, I frequently use this knowledge in my personal life, which again eases potential conflicts and helps me become more patient!

NPT:    What’s ahead for you in the next 12 months?

MK:    I wish I could squeeze all my aspirations into 12 months, but let me stay realistic here. I hope to complete my 4+2 internship and continue working in clinical settings with the most contemporary and open-minded psychologists around. Bring it on!

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