Doing

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You climb up the pole, figure out how to hoist yourself to stand on top, then leap to grab on to the bar….all while your teammates hold on to your harness rope.

Experience is the greatest teacher they say…  Whatever dysfunctions we have going on in our lives (and yes, we all have some) – we come by them honestly.  None of us wakes up one morning and decides to be defensive, destructive, avoidant, etc. for no reason.  We approach life based on the experiences we’ve had and the meanings we’ve made of them.  When those meanings are no longer functional, that’s where therapy comes in.  Together, we explore past experiences and how we interpreted them to identify the sticking points that cause negative results today.  Then, we work together to re-examine those experiences and expand the meanings to understandings that lead to more positive ways of doing life.  The healthy relationship formed in therapy provides a model for the rest of life and offers a safe base from which to go out and change our worlds for the better.

The work done in the therapy room is not effective without implementation into daily life.  Healing requires doing.  We must test out our new meanings, creating new experiences that will cement those meanings in our hearts and not just our brains.  This is the terrifying part.  It can be so comforting and enlightening to have ah-ha moments in therapy.  “Whaaat?!  That’s why I’ve always done that?  Oh my gosh, this totally makes sense now!”  Those insights are wonderful and make for much internal relief and de-stressing.  But then….we have to act “as if”.  If this new understanding is true, what do I do differently?  This is where the terror comes in because it is a great act of vulnerability to go out into an unchanged world with our changed selves and trust that we will be successful.

Sometimes, this becomes a stumbling block for clients.  It could be because we need to do more work on our own internal anxiety before we can take action.  Often though, it is due to confusion about how to actually handle things differently.  Isn’t it normal to need some practice with a new skill before we use it ‘for real’?  This very basic truth about learning is why I believe therapy has to be active.  Perhaps the most common technique is to role play anticipated situations/conversations.  That is an incredibly valuable exercise as we get to form new words and even hold our bodies in different positions than we have before.

I am finding though, that there are plenty of additional ideas for experiential learning.  Last week, I joined a team of colleagues at WinShape to participate in team building exercises with a facilitator who happened to be a therapist.  As we funneled tennis balls through short plastic tubes, held mousetraps in our joined hands, and moved a bowling ball without touching it, I saw so many connections between these activities and the principles that clients are often struggling to implement in their lives:  Creative problem solving, collaboration, trust, believing they can do hard things, believing it is possible to do things differently than before, etc.  Our activities culminated with a climb to the top of what they refer to as the “Pamper pole”.  I’ll let you imagine why it has garnered that name.  Let me just say that I have not experienced that level of terror in a very long time!  Conquering it was the best thing that could have happened though, at a time in my life when I’ve been questioning my ability to rise to the amazing mission unfolding before me.  It gave me absolutely tangible proof that I can dominate and that has already provided energy to move forward with the hard things.  There is nothing like actual success to fuel further success.  The same techniques I used to get through the exercises at WinShape are the same techniques I will use to power through the obstacles I face in the rest of my life.  That is how this works.

I am so excited to bring these kinds of activities back to my clients.  Not just individual sessions, but family sessions, groups and especially corporate workshops.  I have a passion for leadership development and building corporate culture, so this approach fits perfectly!  I do promise however, not to utilize 30 foot telephone poles 🙂

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Weary

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Sholom Park

If you read last week’s post, you know that sleep has been an “issue” for me lately.  Generally speaking, exhaustion has been my constant companion.  At first, I chalked this up to the aforementioned backsliding on sleep hygiene.  But…in my heart I knew there was more to the story.  There always is.

There is a popular metaphor about the frog in boiling water.  The story goes that if you put a frog in a pot of cold water, set it on the stove and turn on the heat…the frog will stay in the water as it continues to get hotter.  Apparently, the gradual rise in temperature is not something it notices and eventually, it will literally boil without ever jumping from the pot as it is free to do.  Now, let’s put aside the very reasonable question of who discovered this awful truth and why.  The point is, it illustrates how we can get so normed to dysfunction or negative circumstances/emotions that we remain oblivious to its dangers.

As I pondered this season of exhaustion and wondered what in the world was wrong with me, I realized that my daughter’s birthday is March 2nd.  Those who know me, realize exactly what that means.  Words cannot describe how much that little girl was the center of my world and what trauma it meant to lose her 22 years in.  How could my body not remember the process of giving life to this central figure?  How could it not mourn the absence of whom it had birthed?  You see…that’s the thing.  The body remembers.  Often, when sleep is elusive, it is absolutely connected to emotional traumas.  What that means is that sleep hygiene becomes even more important as a means of tender loving care for these wounds.  There is no healing without rest.  At the same time, there is no rest without healing so facing the emotional traumas is a must.  And so, I make space to hold.  Wednesday morning, I will head to Sholom Park in Ocala with a dear friend.  It will be a time for reflection.  A time to honor Christina’s memory and to check in with my own grieving process.  It has been five and a half years.  It would be easy to take this process for granted.  To be that frog in the ever hotter water.  To flip the auto pilot switch on which – to be honest – I do much of the time at this point.  However, grieving a child never ends and I must set aside time to reconnect with it.  In the meantime, I treat myself with grace.  I value my imperfection, my brokenness and I seek out people and environments who do the same.

Your sleep difficulties are probably not related to the loss of a child.  However, I am willing to bet money (and I am not a gambler) that you have your own unique story of pain and longing that lurks beneath the surface of insomnia.  Take the steps, yes, to develop a better bedtime routine but do not be fooled – attention must be paid to your emotional health so give some thought to how you will address that.  Keep in mind that you may not remember the relevant factors right now.  Just this morning, I remembered another crucial anniversary that is absolutely contributing to my exhaustion.  One associated with much heartache.  How the heck could I have forgotten that?  I am a therapist…I specialize in these connections!  So there you have it, none of us are immune to these dissociative habits that we develop to keep ourselves protected.  The brain is an amazingly complex and tricky son of a gun.  Venturing into its depths is not for the faint of heart and seriously not a journey to take alone!  If you’re ready to get to the root of sleep difficulties…enlist a qualified wilderness guide.  I promise it is one of the scariest, yet best decisions you’ll ever make!

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Sweet Dreams

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(wayfair.com)

The best preachers deliver the messages they most need themselves :).  That’s the principle behind this week’s post…on sleep.  I’ve definitely fallen off the wagon in this area of life and so perhaps by writing about healthy sleep habits, I will jump-start my own process back to the land of nod.

According to the CDC, more than a third of Americans do not get enough sleep on a regular basis!  Clearly, I’m not alone.  First – what do they mean by “enough”?  The general guideline for this study is 7 hours per night.  Interestingly enough, geography, race/ethnicity, employment and marital status all seem to affect the odds of healthy sleep.  Those of us here in the Southeastern US for example, are less likely to hit the 7 hour standard.  But why?  What are the factors making this such a widespread issue?  The culprits tend to be longer work hours as well as longer commutes to work which push other aspects of life into the wee hours.  Shift work (now more prevalent thanks to a global economy) wreaks havoc on the sleep-wake cycle.  Finally, most everyone is entertaining themselves on some sort of screened device late into the night, despite the fact that we have well established the harmful effects of blue light from those devices on the body’s production of melatonin – our sleep hormone. This is especially common for those living in high stress situations.  For many – the additional factors of chronic illness, medication side effects and sleep disorders come into play.  All of this adds up to a major concern: consistent sleep shortages contribute to heart disease, obesity, depression, lowered immunity, type 2 diabetes and other ills!

No matter the cause, developing healthy sleep habits is part of the cure.  In my work with clients, I always assess quality and quantity of sleep.  If we find deficiencies, I encourage my clients to consider changes in their sleep habits as adequate rest is absolutely necessary for fueling whatever work we are trying to do in therapy.  What does that look like?  Here are the guidelines I usually work with.  Adjustments are made to align with each person’s unique situation so discuss these with your doctor to create a plan that works for you:

  • Do not get into bed except when it is time to sleep.  Our beds often become associated with work and we need to retrain our brains to associate bed with sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine four hours before bed (this includes chocolate).
  • Avoid naps during the day until your sleep-wake cycle has been established.
  • Set an alarm for one hour before bed as a daily reminder. When it goes off, cut out all screen activity (TV or computer).
  • Eat a small snack of complex carbs.
  • Drink a cup of warm milk or Sleepytime tea.
  • Dim the lights – consider putting your bedroom lamp on a timer to automatically dim each night.
  • Shower, get ready for bed, etc.
  • Journal the concerns of the day.  This allows your brain to ‘let go’ of these issues.
  • Listen to relaxing music.
  • Read relaxing material.
  • Turn lights out at the same time every night.
  • Consider use of a white noise machine or earplugs.
  • Use a relaxation exercise to quiet the central nervous system.
  • If you lie awake for 20 minutes, get out of bed and do some other quiet activity in dimmed lighting until you feel sleepy – repeat as often as necessary – do not lie awake for endless amounts of time
  • Wake up every morning at the same time. Do not use a buzzer-type alarm which has been shown to kick off an adrenaline rush (not how you want to start your day).

It takes at least two weeks of consistency to see a change in sleep quality so once you’ve developed a routine that works for you – stick with it for the long haul.  When you consult with your doctor, ask about nutritional changes/supplements that can help improve the quality of your sleep.  Do your homework to learn as much as you can.

I hope these suggestions will bring improvement in this vitally important area of your life. Check back here for a report on my progress in the coming months!  I’d love to hear from those of you who make changes as well 🙂

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The toughest job

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We parent as well as we were parented.  That can be a comforting or frightening statement…depending on our history.  I remember when I first gave birth, I was determined to do this thing “right”.  This is how I had been trained to approach everything for 20 years.  Certainly, this task – the most important one I’d ever tackle – demanded my best.   Then, to make things really interesting, my little one was diagnosed with a chronic illness for which there was no cure.

Looking back on my parenting path, I see a developmental journey:  Stage one was the thirst for knowledge.  I had been essentially an only child.  I had never babysat a child, never changed a diaper.  To say I was ‘green’ would have been an understatement.  But I was diligent and committed.  I knew that there was much from my history that I did not want to repeat so I read the books, listened to the radio shows and subscribed to the magazines.  Stage two was about behavior.  I was raised in a culture that valued presentation and good behavior and while I was determined not to use the same punishments, I was still invested in similar outcomes.  Except…this little girl was not at all interested in conforming as I had been.  She marched to the beat of her own drum.  Stage three was bedlam.  My well crafted systems were not working.  My home environment changed and my beloved was dancing at the edge of dangerous canyons.  I was completely undone.  Stage four found me in complete retreat.  I was forced to go back to the drawing board to figure out what my true parenting goals were and how I was going to accomplish them.  From a faith perspective, I began to realize that while it was easy to focus on my daughter as ‘the problem’, God’s spotlight was squarely on me…what was being unearthed within me by her refusal to fall in step with my beat?  Slowly, my focus changed as I entered stage five.  From behavior to relationship.  From nagging to introspection – an awareness of what each conflict was meant to teach me.  Not that I abdicated my responsibility as a parent.  I was still the authority but I streamlined those functions and attempted to spend more time on personal growth and pursuing intimate connection with her.  I am forever grateful that my final parenting stage (six) was an imperfect attempt at unconditional love.  I solidified my understanding of who she was as a person…what she was responsible for (which I was not) and what I was truly responsible for as her mom.  Unfortunately, I had just crested this summit when she disappeared.

Maybe you recognize yourself somewhere in these stages.  It’s helpful sometimes to know that you’re on a developmental journey, that this will get better.  This isn’t a researched and validated developmental theory but hopefully, it is still helpful in reassuring you that this is normal – whatever your “this” is.  That there is a progression here.  Don’t get me wrong.  It didn’t play out in the linear way I’ve presented here.  It was more like a circuitous roller-coaster ride that cycled in and out of the stages in no particular order. Once again, if that is how you’re feeling, you’re not alone.

I have a passion for coming along-side parents on their journey.  I’m not a “drop your kid off and I’ll fix them” therapist.  In my view, it begins and ends with parents – if for no other reason than we have the ultimate responsibility and authority to respond to whatever is happening with the child.  We are the leaders in this equation.  Our children give us an opportunity to grow as people in a way no other interaction can and I love helping my clients harness the occasion.  As parents flourish, children naturally improve.  This only happens however when parents feel safe.  Safe to vent, cry, blame, speak the truth of what they are actually thinking and feeling without judgment.  The last thing we need is someone to make us feel like a failure.  What is needed is empathy, encouragement and hope.  A place where our ugly is held and our pain is validated.  Where root causes are unearthed and processed so that we move in a different direction.  That is what I do with my clients so if you’re looking for a coworker on this – the toughest job of all; give us a call.  The rewards in stage six are well worth the journey!

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Living with chronic illness

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It’s like having an uninvited house guest who contributes nothing, eats everything in the kitchen, occasionally damages the furniture and won’t leave despite all attempts to kick him out.  Eventually, resignation sets in and you begin trying to figure out how you’re going to work around this vermin over the long-term.

A chronic illness diagnosis (cancer, diabetes, arthritis, to name a few examples) changes everything and what makes it a special kind of challenge is the complexity of the effects.  Everything is connected to everything else and so it seems no matter how much time goes by, you continue to discover another area that is impacted by the diagnosis.  Let’s break down the major categories:

Obviously, there are physical changes which come with the diagnosis.  Those vary according to the specific illness.  The consistent theme however, is the idea of limitation.  Physically, your body just doesn’t perform in the way you are used to.  Changes may be immediate or insidiously appear over time.  Energy level is often greatly affected and thus motivation to accomplish what was normal for you in the past, wanes significantly.  All of this leads to some form of identity crisis as our culture has so trained us to associate identity/worth with production.  If I cannot function/produce at the level to which I am accustomed, what does that say about me?  What makes me worthwhile?

Mentally – most chronic illnesses do impact brain functioning.  At best, we may experience some mental ‘fogginess’.  At worst, there may be physiological changes to the brain that result in difficulties with long and/or short-term memory or even personality change.  Processing speed often declines and things like executive functioning may be challenged.  It is difficult to determine which of these changes result from the illness itself and which are side effects of long-term medications.

Emotionally – the self-worth battle is a significant issue.  As we lose major aspects of how we defined ourselves, we struggle to redefine and focus on what now makes us who we are.  If we have always struggled with self-care, the idea of prioritizing self and doing what it takes to pursue health is a foreign concept.  We may face spiritual crisis as we wrestle with the idea of a higher power that would  allow this to happen.  This current battle filters through the lens of all we have experienced.  The meanings we have made of our childhood then, determine how we integrate this latest development.  If those meanings are dysfunctional – managing a chronic illness becomes nearly impossible.  One of my areas of special interest is the reciprocal nature of this domain.  So many chronic illnesses have a correlation with unresolved emotional challenges.  It is becoming clear from medical research that emotional trauma increases the rates of chronic illness.  Thus, it makes sense that addressing emotional trauma would be a key component of preventing/treating chronic illness and that is one of my passions!

Socially – our loved ones struggle to adjust to the implications of our diagnosis.  As we sort out the lifestyle changes needed to care for our condition, the aforementioned limitations; as we deal with our own changing self concept, we relate to everyone differently.  If we are not aware of this, then we are not even able to help others figure out what is happening and thus, we collectively exist in a state of confusion and frustration.  In the end, everyone is experiencing their own grieving process of the way things used to be and the envisioned future that now will not manifest as planned.  Grieving is complicated (denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance).  Imagine a system of individuals all working through that process at their own unique speeds in the context of their own functional and dysfunctional coping skills and core meanings.  Is it any wonder that it gets messy?!  Suffice it to say, relationships are absolutely impacted, yet very little attention is given to this area.

Unfortunately, most medical teams do not take the time to inform, much less address these complex issues.  Too many patients muddle through their diagnosis, unaware of the developmental impact and what are very normal implications.  Our default is to always seek status quo (remember learning about homeostasis in biology class?) and so the aftermath of a diagnosis often looks like a constant battle to return to our “normal” with increasing frustration at the inability to do so.  The scary part is that all of this then exacerbates our illness, making our physical condition worse and creating a vicious cycle of decline.

My hope is that this information helps someone realize that they are not the problem.  That the struggles they have been having are perfectly normal in the reality of a chronic illness and that there is hope!  Knowledge is power and once we understand what we are dealing with, we can create and execute a plan of attack.  Just as the doctor delivers information, prompts options in need of research, creates the physical treatment plan and monitors progress – so too can the counselor educate on the developmental impact of chronic illness, highlight areas for exploration, as well as create the emotional, mental and social treatment plan.  Carefully working on self-worth and relationships within the context of physical limitations is key.  Constantly monitoring self-care: sleep, nutrition and movement is a requirement.  Completing the tasks of grieving is necessary for transitioning into a new normal: taking inventory and accepting the reality of your losses, working through the pain of loss, adjusting to the new environment created by the current reality and integrating the old self with the new self.  The best part is that this work improves physical outcomes so despite the difficulty of the process, it is definitely worth it!

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Fresh Starts

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Some of us get excited about the new year.  We see it as a new chapter in our books: a blank page, a clean slate.  Others are so sick of the “new year, new you” grandiosity that emerges this time of year.  We cast cynical eyes at the bright-eyed hopefuls…mentally calculating how long it will take them to fall back to the bottom of the same pits they’ve lived in for years.  Social media is full of commentary on ‘new year resolutions’ – some encouraging, some disparaging and some offering a ‘third way’ perspective.  Where do you fall on the continuum?

Regardless of your stance, there is a reason that humanity so consistently gravitates toward new year rituals.  I believe we are naturally wired to operate seasonally.  A brief look at nature shows us this rhythm: each year there is soil preparation, planting, hope, watering, weeding, harvesting, barrenness and then new beginnings.  In the winter, the farmer assesses the previous year’s experience, using that information to plan out the next year’s crops.  Seeds are ordered and excitement begins to build toward the possibilities next summer.  Is it any coincidence that those same activities seem natural to us in the middle of winter (New Year’s Day)?  Seems to me that adopting a crotchety attitude toward all of this is rather fruitless (no pun intended 🙂 ).  Thus, we have a choice: do we jump on the bandwagon of renewal or do we sit it out with the assumption that nothing ever changes anyway?

I’m a counselor so I’m sure it’s no mystery where I fall.  My entire field is about transformation so any excuse to move toward that is something to be excited about in my world.  I believe the key is realism.  I think this is where the bandwagon falls apart – we spend December in a whirlwind of comparison.  The holidays ramp up the social media highlight reel, making it that much easier to look at our own lives through a distorted lens which inspires a long laundry list of all that is wrong.  We spend December mentally beating ourselves up and by the 31st, we have created a herculean plan for life overhaul which we enthusiastically proclaim and begin on the 1st.  Only to fall flat before the first month of the year is done 😦 .  Yeah….let’s not do that again.

Again, realism is key.  It is now the third day of the year.  I’ll assume we’ve basically come down from the high of the first day and we may already be casting skeptical eyes at our resolutions.  Before you abandon ship, could we explore some adjustments?  I’d like to offer a few suggestions:

  • Resolutions are goals.  They are nice for painting the destination but they don’t necessarily give us any idea how to get there.  We need to define action steps.
  • If you made more than one resolution, may I suggest that you choose just one?  What is most important to you?  Focus is vital!
  • Reflect on 2016.  What happened in this area of your life?  What were the specific things that held you back in this area?  Make a list of those factors.
  • For each item on the list – what specific action will you need to take to conquer that obstacle?  What routines will you need to develop in order to reprogram the way you typically operate?  What rewards do you need to set up to reinforce these new behaviors?  Break things down into a list of small, specific steps.
  • Break our your calendar/planner (paper or electronic) and start mapping out those specific steps throughout the entire year.  Spread out the steps so that you are doing no more than one new thing each week.  Don’t take everything on at once!  Stagger out the steps over time so that you make changes gradually – giving yourself enough time to establish each new step before moving to the next one.
  • Ideally, it is best if you schedule the steps at a particular time/day but at the very least, record a reminder on a particular day of the week (or repeated every day of that week if needed).  Consider setting alarms on your phone to remind you of things you need to do.
  • While you’re at it – schedule a monthly check in now to assess how you’re doing: what’s working and what needs to change.
  • What resources can you turn to for maintaining hope throughout the year?  (Magazines, Facebook pages, blogs, devotionals, etc.)  Sign up for those now so it is automatic.
  • Who can you enlist as an accountability partner/encourager?  Talk to them now and agree on specific contact: weekly phone call/text/Facebook message?  Consider including that person in your monthly check ins to help you assess and stay on track.

Transformation is extremely difficult but it is definitely possible.  As we’ve discussed before in this space, it is nearly impossible to do alone though so if you find yourself struggling to stay the course, if you can’t find effective support – please consider counseling.  Good therapy is one of the best ways to pursue renewal so don’t flounder alone!

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Shattered

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One of the greatest joys I have in my work is the privilege of helping clients piece the parts of themselves back together after a lifetime of brokenness.  Sometimes we find ourselves limping through relationships, work situations or family responsibilities.  It is typically problems in these areas that bring people into counseling.  For far too many, it doesn’t take long to discover the roots of these troubles as multiple incidences of abuse, betrayal, and/or neglect in the crucial early years of life.  American culture is rooted in a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.  Everywhere we turn, the general message is to put our heads down and push through whatever obstacles come our way, in order to achieve and succeed.  Add to that the fact that folks who come from hard places often spend at least early adulthood in survival mode.  They don’t have the luxury of examining their pain and learning from it – every day is about making sure there is food on the table, a roof over their heads and beating back the fear or depression that threatens to consume.  We tend to minimize our experiences – “it wasn’t that bad” – and we shy away from the word, “trauma”.  The reality is though that any life experience that presented a threat to life or health, which elicited significant fear or helplessness is a trauma.  If we are honest with ourselves, many of us have such an experience in our history…sometimes multiple.  The resources to obtain assistance for emotional needs are usually scarce in such a scenario.  Even for those with means, the general approach is to ignore the past and look ahead to the next job, relationship or location that will make all the difference.  Unfortunately, the body and mind remembers.  Early trauma sets into motion dysfunctional beliefs that carry through into adulthood.  It distorts view of self and as research is now discovering – it literally changes the way the brain develops.  The effects of significant childhood difficulties are multilayered and extend into every area of adult life – relationships, career, self concept, cognitive functioning, physical health, etc.  In order to live life to the fullest, these effects must be faced, grieved and overcome.  The problem is, this is a painful process that is almost impossible to complete alone.  Hence why so many folks live their entire lives never experiencing significant healing.

This doesn’t have to be our story.  Competent, compassionate counseling is one of the most effective ways to address this.  What does that look like?  It requires a counselor who understands the multilayered impact of trauma – how it affects every aspect of development: socially, emotionally, physically, cognitively and spiritually.  Wading into these waters with clients is difficult.  A counselor who has not learned to sit with their own pain, who has not thoroughly grieved their own traumas, will not be able to sustain themselves in this work.  They inevitably resort to techniques and interventions that promise a quick fix and allow them to stay distanced from your pain.  True healing requires an empathic, authentic connection which provides the comfort and safety needed to face the ugly.  This relationship is foundational.  From there, the process begins with creating safety: cataloging resources available to the client outside of counseling, identifying the warning signs of emotional overload, as well as teaching visualization and relaxation techniques that will be used throughout the work.  Unfortunately, this is a step that gets missed in some counseling encounters which go straight into unpacking traumatic experiences with no tools for the client to cope outside of sessions.  This is clearly a very dangerous approach which can inoculate clients against counseling forevermore.

Once the client has mastered the skills necessary to cope with what they are about to face, then we can begin to explore their story.  This can happen in a variety of ways: verbally, or through writing, art or other expressive methods.  Using a variety of modalities allows the client to access multiple aspects of their experience.  The therapist facilitates the safety needed to tell the story and helps the client connect the dots between their experience and resulting beliefs, behaviors, decisions, health symptoms, and attachment styles.  Losses are identified and grieving is encouraged and guided.  This alone brings a tremendous amount of emotional relief.  It also identifies core beliefs that have driven dysfunctional patterns.  With the insight gained, choices are made regarding what needs to change and thus begins improvement in relationships and thinking.  Throughout the process, physical health is monitored and addressed.  Trauma experiences, as well as trauma work has physiological consequences and so the therapist must be proactive in assessing this area and partnering with professionals who are competent in treating patients with traumatic histories.

It is likely obvious by now that this is a delicate, unpredictable process that cannot be rushed.  By the time we choose to seek this kind of counseling, we have typically been dealing with the effects of trauma for many, many years.  Addressing it completely then, will take some time.  Everyone’s coping skills level and emotional reservoir coming into the process is different and determines how long healing will take so there is no formula to be applied here.  If you find yourself struggling to manage your emotions, ‘zoning out’ a lot, dealing with chronic health issues, beating yourself up, or battling multiple relationship issues, there is likely a trauma connection.  Give us a call!

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The great adventure!

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Last week, we discussed expressive therapy.  This week, I wanted to discuss a related modality – adventure therapy!  This form of therapy is also active and experiential and utilizes a similar focus on process.  Clients engage in fun activities like ropes courses, rock climbing, kayaking, etc., in the presence of the therapist.  In expressive therapy, I explained that the product was not the center – the process is.  Similarly, with adventure therapy – the activity itself is not the center which means that the possibilities are endless.  What matters is that therapist and client choose an activity that offers some challenge, either physically or psychologically, to be overcome.  It is in facing this challenge and working through it together that transformation happens.  Your therapist is able to observe the way in which you approach the activity and offer encouragement along the way.  They take note of what emerges verbally and non-verbally.  After the activity, therapist and client discuss  the process to identify both the conscious and unconscious meanings.  The goal is to transfer the lessons learned during the activity into the life challenges faced.  It is one thing to discuss solutions and new perspectives.  It is another level entirely to actually apply new perspectives to novel challenges – providing an experiential testing ground.  There is an undeniable power in such tangible evidence..making it far more likely that you will actually apply what has been learned.

Like expressive therapy – adventure therapy bypasses the typical defenses we have in place for traditional verbal communication.  Participating in a novel activity opens us up in ways conversation alone cannot.  Though the research on neurological effects is sparse, it is reasonable to deduce that this form of therapy also utilizes unique areas of the brain, leading to results not achieved when sitting in a chair.  We have already proven that exposure to nature has profound healing effects on depression, anxiety and ADHD.  With most of these sessions happening outside, we have a double benefit.  Certainly, it is also interesting to consider how the physical activity of adventure therapy may bring healing to physiologically stored trauma.  In the end though, I once again emphasize the relationship between client and therapist as the safe container within which this work must occur if it is to be effective!  We’re excited to be looking at ways we can incorporate adventure therapy in the practice here at Phenix.  We believe these modalities, combined with the relational foundation of our therapeutic approach offer a powerful combination for healing and transformation.

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When talking isn’t enough

expression

“Expressive therapies”.  Maybe you’ve heard the term – it has certainly appeared in Phenix content before.  However, you may not have clarity on what that means.  So what is it exactly?  It is the use of creative arts as a form of therapy.  This can include art, music, dance, drama, etc.  Unlike the formal practice of art however, expressive therapy focuses on the process of creativity versus a final product.    This form of therapy has gained popularity due to the fact that clients often have very well developed defense systems in place to protect them from cognitively/verbally facing their pain.  Even clients who enter therapy with full intention to deal with what needs to be tackled can find themselves struggling to  access their history and its attendant feelings.  Enter expressive therapies which utilize non-verbal forms of communication.  Drawing, painting, writing, dancing – these activities access a completely different part of the brain than talking does.  Thus, the results are often quite different.  Since most of us are not accustomed to communicating in this manner, we have not developed the complex systems of defenses we have mastered verbally.  As we awkwardly fumble through expressive assignments, we’re just trying to figure out how to follow the instructions, leaving us often unaware of the emotions and stories unfolding through our expression.  This provides a valuable window into our subconscious, undefended world.

What we produce in expressive therapy can be very enlightening: a poem or song composed, a picture painted – these pieces capture our often unknown world and together, the therapist and client step back and analyze what has been created.  It is a wonderful way to pursue the knowing of self that has been referred to on this blog before.  However, as we have discussed, this can be wonderfully fun and terrifying at the same time.  We are generally not used to the clarity of self that expressive therapy brings so facing the realities uncovered can bring difficulty.  We discover hidden strengths, but also carefully avoided shadows.  Though it is the product that is being analyzed, the process of discovery that this analysis entails is the true focus of the therapist.

Overall, process is the key to expressive therapy.  What the client feels and thinks during the activity matters.  What is happening physically is observed by the therapist.  All of this provides key insight into the emotions, history and meanings underneath client experiences.  These insights are what allow understanding to emerge regarding destructive patterns and provide the empowerment needed to change them.  It’s all about process which is a stark contrast to the product-focused society we live in.  Participating in this form of therapy often brings an entirely new dimension into the client’s life.  When its power is observed in therapy, there is a natural move to incorporate a process focus into the rest of one’s life as well.  What we have here is a win-win result!

An important aspect of expressive therapy has to do with information that we are just beginning to learn in the field of neuropsychology.  New information about the workings of the brain comes out every single day and while this is an exciting age, I often caution my students to maintain a humility with this exploding field…based on the fact that there is still so much we do NOT know.  That said, what we are finding so far is that trauma experiences affect the physiological tissue and workings of the brain.  This impact has been shown to correlate with physical illnesses as well as behavioral and cognitive patterns.  The race is on to develop a system of categorizing these brain changes and creating brain-based interventions that will address this physiological root of client struggles.  In the meantime, expressive therapies have shown early signs of healing effects upon the limbic system – parts of the brain responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory.  Traditional talk therapy does not seem to have the same power in this area of the brain!

Overall, expressive therapy provides a valuable tool in the therapist’s kit for accessing aspects of trauma impact that other modalities fall short with.  The same logic applies to brain-based modalities like EMDR, ACT or EFT.  My personal approach however is holistic which means I do not ascribe to a one-modality approach.  It is my firm belief that deep and long lasting healing requires a complex process that attends to the many facets of human functioning: verbal/non verbal expression and exploration of meaning, brain based interventions, as well as physical health – sleep, nutrition and movement.  I also firmly believe that all of this must take place within the confines of a healthy and connected therapeutic relationship because it is this connection that opens up the brain and heart to true transformation.  Stay tuned next week for a look at a related form of therapy that Phenix will be expanding into soon!

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Soul Seasons

rhythm

As the weather finally changes here in central Florida, I have been reveling in the cooler temperatures.  Saturday night brought our first backyard fire of the season.  We’ve opened the windows and turned off the AC for days now.  Every morning, I sit on the back patio to drink my coffee.  As this change in weather has brought about changes in behavior, I am reminded of a book I read last year that I am still pondering all these months later.

Mark’s premise is so simple yet revolutionary at the same time: Just as our natural world has seasons which inspire/require different activities – so do our lives have varying seasons.  While I’ve been well aware of that reality, the part I never really thought about is the corresponding fact – those varying seasons require different activities and we can be intentional about making those adjustments. Yes, I’ve adapted my activities as seasons have changed in my life, but that was always a reactionary process, not a proactive one.  The idea that I could regularly assess my season and plan my activities accordingly was a novel one.

So according to Mark’s description, I am currently in a Fall season.  I have watched many aspects of my life wither away and die.  Yet, even in the midst of the “leaves falling”, there is beauty.  It has also been a time of final harvest, as I am reaping what I have sown in seasons past – for good and bad.  My activities at this point in time should be focused on “fall things”: reaping, storing, feasting and thanking.  Thus, I ponder what that looks like exactly for me.  I collect the harvest of my previous efforts – that means as blessings come to me (usually through the relationships I’ve invested in), I receive them instead of deflecting or minimizing.  Likewise, the consequences that unfold from the choices I made in previous seasons…I accept those as well instead of avoiding and excusing.  I store up the sense of closeness I have to God right now because I know that dark nights of the soul will come and I will need to remember this time.  I store up the blessings poured out for leaner times.  I store up the lessons learned from the consequences of my choices so that I can choose more wisely in the future.  I celebrate with gusto – all that God has done and been for me, taking time to count the tiniest of blessings.

Maybe you recognize the Fall season in your life too but perhaps your harvest is not at all pleasant.  Perhaps there simply is none or the fruit is bitter.  Mark addresses this as well with a few questions we can ask ourselves to get to the bottom of what is happening:

  • Who am I?  Am I living a life authentic to who God created me to be?
  • What is my purpose?  Am I living out my destiny?
  • What is my passion?  What makes me unique?  Am I living that out?

In the end, Fall is a time of assessment – reflecting on our planting and crop work to understand what worked well and what needs to be adjusted so that when Spring comes, we are ready with a plan that yields even better fruit than the cycle before.  Take some time to consider what season your life is in right now.  Get the book if you could use some help with that, especially with the business of focusing on the right tasks for your season.  Remember, counseling can be a wonderful tool for assistance in this process!

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