What. just. happened?!

Twenty-twenty’ing is hard!

Hi all! It’s me! Your neighborhood, friendly, spiderman therapist…

It’s been a while!! How’ve ya been? Silly question… I know. You’ve been twenty-twenty’ing like the rest of us (yes, I’m verbing 2020… it’s my new in-session survival word).

Working from home stress… working in public stress… out of work stress… back to school stress… school from home stress… home alone stress… can’t get alone time stress… All… The… Stress…

While we are twenty-twenty’ing, let’s just go ahead and serve it with some a la cart doses of world events, main stream media, and social media concerns… and the cherry on top: random guilt & shame for “not being enough…”

In the last 7 months, the population of our nation has been living through prolonged trauma. Because of that, life has felt a lot heavier for many. Some may be looking around saying “I had this! I was good at this in March, April, May… but now I am struggling!! HARD! And I can’t seem to do what everyone else is doing!! WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!” Others are looking around saying “How on EARTH did you function even in the beginning?? I’ve been swimming upstream since March 13 and I’m exhausted…” Meanwhile, there are the lucky ones who have been able to say “I mean, this isn’t ideal but so far I’m adjusting pretty well… life goes on!”

Do you relate to any of those thoughts? I want you to internalize this: everyone is experiencing this trauma (these traumas) and no two people respond the same to it. Please do not compare your experience with others’ experiences. If this is hitting you extra hard: it’s not a shortcoming, a character defect, or a weakness… If you’re floating along just fine: it’s not denial, lack of empathy, or a super human spidey-strength… Our responses are just those: responses.

The organ of the brain is such an incredible and complex system. Unique as a fingerprint. The intricacies are both primitive and novel. And sometimes the primitive brain (some refer to this as the “dragon brain”) takes over because it is cued to respond to a perceived threat… and the primitive brain does not always align with the logical brain that we have all grown to love and trust… That’s a watered down version of a trauma response.

If our brain cannot connect a new perceived threat with a threat it has survived before (for reference on how to handle the situation), it defaults into SURVIVAL MODE… and that is EXHAUSTING!! In short, your sympathetic nervous system has been working overtime without hazard pay and without meal breaks for several months in a row… and if you’re in the “exhausted” phase of it all, your body is attempting to recover from the boost of “wake up!!” hormones this survival system has been sending to your brain (those were the same ones that made you hypervigilant and maybe made it hard to sleep and concentrate).

If you’re getting to this point and thinking “but I haven’t been scared of anything… so obviously my brain isn’t taking this as a trauma… but I’m still struggling and still exhausted.” I need to remind you: trauma is the perceived or actual loss of power and control. State shutting down: trauma. School closing: trauma. Social unrest: trauma. Loss of income: trauma. Pandemic: trauma.

So what do I do?

Well, there are a lot of things and I’m sure you’ve heard about them ad nauseam… So I am going to start with the main ones.

  • If you are thinking you need help professionally, contact your Primary Care Physician and/or your counselor…. some people have found some success with medications during times like these (meds are not always “forever” and it’s not uncommon for physicians to treat situation-based mood/anxiety disorders with temporary meds). Likewise, therapy isn’t forever… go talk to a therapist who will be happy to hear you out no matter how “big or small” the issue is.
  • Music (I know I know I know… you’re sick of hearing about this one… but hear me out). Music can connect the hemispheres of the brain to help to almost “reset” your ability to bring the logic brain back to the forefront. It helps with relaxation, concentration, and with the right music it helps with overall self-regulation (emotional control). For the best results with this, use headphones to cancel out other noises and pay attention to the notes, volume, and tempo.
  • Decrease your to-do list. No. For real. You need to. Yes, I know you have 12,000 extra things on your plate now but just because it’s on your plate does not mean you must eat it (we are not in 1980 parochial school here, folks… you need not clean your plate before going to recess). One item at a time. When you complete that item, reassess your motivation and energy and go from there with either your break or your next item.
  • Be Nice To Yourself… challenge your thoughts when you wonder “why can that person but I can’t” or “I should just be thankful…” What??? Who is thankful for trauma during trauma??? I mean, I’m thankful for the time I’m having with my family buuuuut that gratitude doesn’t erase the stress of this world… and that other person who seems to be killing this… maybe they are and maybe they’re not… but that has no bearing on your success or perceived lack of success at this. Remember when you would ask your parent to do something or have something and when they said ‘no’ you would say “But HIS mom lets him!!”… what was your parent’s response?? Come on… say it with me… “Well I’m not HIS mom! So, no.” (I know I’m not the only one who has heard or said this…). Well, sometimes your situation says “Well, I’m not HIS situation… so, no.” When those thoughts come, remind yourself “I am doing the best I can with the resources I have. And that is enough.”
  • Go outside. Especially if you’re prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s time to get that boost in Vitamin D.
  • Eat food. (No, not eat your feelings… but man those Oreos are sounding delish right about now). Get food into your body. Score bonus if you add some balance in there. And if you’re noticing your balance is off in your diet, ask your Primary Care Physician what multivitamin supplement might be right for you. Your body and brain need to be nourished.
  • Allow yourself the space and time to grieve. Trauma comes with loss and it’s okay to grieve… even as simple as the loss of normalcy. Feel it, be present in it, and then release it.
  • And my favorite…. drumroll…. set boundaries. Say ‘no’. Be assertive. Stick to your boundaries. It’s okay. You do not need to balance other plates on top of your own right now. You can still be there for your loved ones but you can also still have boundaries in the process.
  • Oh, also, put on your favorite comedy… find time to laugh your head off. It actually can be extremely therapeutic.

So in short… remember my mishap in the beginning?? Referring to myself as Spiderman?? Well clearly, I am not he… and he is not me… and I am no superhero at all. None of us are. So why hold ourselves to those same standards?

We are human. We are grieving. We are loved. We are worth it & enough.

The “Yeah, But…” and the “Ugh…”

Three words that destroy your motivation… “Yeah, but” and “ugh”.

I hear these words and read these words so frequently. I don’t think people truly realize the power their words have on their own mental health. And if I could pick any words at all to try to help clients to stop saying (or writing), it’s “yeah, but” and “ugh…”.

Like many people, you may not have ever given these phrases a second thought. Most of us are guilty of uttering them in moments of frustration. However, if you find yourself saying things like this frequently, you might notice that your motivation and your mood are struggling.

Negativity and the Brain and Body

In short, the science behind what those types of words do to your brain goes a little something like this: complaining releases a stress hormone called cortisol. Higher levels of this stress hormone make you more likely to have decreased immune functioning and puts you at higher risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Likewise, when your cortisol levels increase, the “happy chemicals” your body naturally produces (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins) will decrease. This makes you more susceptible to depression, anxiety, panic, and substance use disorders. Add this all together and you have a cocktail that will keep you stuck and, quite literally, make you sick.

Yeah, but…

If there are two words that will have me as a therapist, friend, or family member (rudely) interrupt you to stop you dead in your tracks, these are the words. When we say “yeah, but” what it tends to tell our brain is “stay closed… don’t be open to adaptive ideas… stay in the negative moment… stay stuck.”

For real. Yeah, but… keeps you stuck.

The person in the toxic relationship reaching out to vent (or for help) “yeah, but when they’re nice they are awesome!!” (Translation to brain: they are horrible to me most of the time but I’m scared to make a change or cut ties… so I will convince myself to stay in it.)

The person in an unhealthy work environment: “yeah, but it pays the bills and I don’t know where else I could work.” (Translation to brain: I’ll put up with it destroying my mental health instead of finding something new… because I don’t know if somewhere else will pay the bills.)

The person who wants change: “Yeah, but it’s always been done this way…” or “Yeah, but I’ve tried other things like that and they didn’t work…” (Translation to brain: it’s hopeless).

The person who won’t give trust a try with a seemingly trustworthy person: “Yeah, but I’ve been burned before…” (Translation to brain: I need to isolate.)

(Insert so many more examples here).

So what should you replace the “yeah, but’s” with??

“I’ll keep that in mind…”

“That’s another way of looking at it…”

“I feel stuck and need to brainstorm options…”

“What in this situation is within my control?”

When a “yeah, but” happens, it’s usually a way to stay in self-defeat mode because change is scary and sometimes excruciating. And THAT IS OKAY to know that about situations at times. When a client says “yeah, but” to me frequently about specific situations, I often have them write out a pros and cons list of keeping things the way they are vs. making a difficult change. I have them focus on both long-term and short-term pros and cons. Typically, the short-term pros of staying in an unforgiving situation do not outweigh the long-term cons of it. When we can visualize the road map of positive change, we often are empowered to make that change.

Ugh…

This is a shorter segment and is right to the point.

Instead of saying “ugh” say “I don’t like this.”

“Ugh” does not provide any forward movement. It’s like a punctuation mark of a situation.

“My house is so messy…. ugh!” vs. “My house is so messy… I don’t like this.”

If I end with “ugh”, I’m likely to just sit in the situation. If I acknowledge that I don’t like a situation (with my words and thoughts), I am more apt to take a step to change the situation.

What if my loved one says these things all the time?

When your loved one is stuck like this and vents to you frequently about situations, after the venting session ends (venting isn’t always a bad thing), ask them:

“How can I help you with this situation?”

“What have you already tried to decrease this stress?”

“Are you wanting to vent it out or are you asking for my guidance?”

Sometimes, we give unsolicited advice and guidance and that further complicate the person’s emotions. However, if the chronic venting is weighing on you, let your loved one know that it is difficult for you to hear about their stress without offering help or guidance to alleviate the stress. Express to them that sometimes you’re not so great at leaving venting at venting. Give them your support, but don’t take on their stress.

If you are the chronic complainer, ask yourself the same questions. Find someone you trust and ask them to help you to reframe your “yeah, but’s” and “ugh’s” into more adaptive language so that you can get out of situations that keep you down.

“Planning” for Self-Care

Recently, I added a “Recommendations” page to my website so that I can keep a running log of books, workbooks, apps, journals, and other products that I have found to be useful in the overall improvement of mental health.

The first items that I added to that list related primarily to planning and journaling.

This was strategic on my end. As a therapist, a lot of my focus with my clients revolve around forward movement (planning) and insightful reflection (journaling).

Without getting all psychobabbly on you all, I’ll just lay it out there: there is evidence that supports that even a moderate level of forward thinking, planning, and organizing decreases stress and improves overall mood. And, furthermore, I’m not telling most people anything new when I mention that journaling is an adaptive self-management tool for those who need a way to safely decompress from the events of the day/week.

Journaling & Reflection

I think by middle school, most of us had all heard something along the lines of “if you’re having a hard time talking about your feelings, put it into writing.” That concept is absolutely wonderful, however, it is not the only way to benefit from journaling.

Journaling can include the obvious (writing about the events of the day or writing down your feelings) but it can include so much more.

Gratitude Journaling became a popular buzz phrase when Oprah talked about how imperative a gratitude list is. It can be daunting to think about journaling ONLY about gratitude and that turns a lot of people away from it. However, the effects of writing down even ONE thing that you are grateful for each day cannot be ignored. You can literally write down one concept at the end of the day and your brain will thank you for it.

Self Care Journaling can be split into multiple categories. Typically, in the counseling domain, we focus on emotional self care and physical self care.

  • Emotional self care journaling entails writing down a daily motivation (lots of times this is in the form of a quote), what your emotional needs are today, the top 3-5 things you can do for yourself today (things that you will be able to fit into your daily grind), how they will help you to fulfill your emotional goals, support persons who you can call upon if you need help, and personal strengths that you possess that will allow you to overcome any barriers.
  • Physical self care journaling can include things like daily water intake, exercise, breathing, yoga, food intake, amount and quality of sleep, and medication adherence.

Finance Logging is also a source of self-support (I know… it sounds so tedious and stressful… but stay with me on this). As one of the main sources of stress for the average family, feeling in control of finances can greatly decrease that stress. While your income might not be increasing and your bills are likely not currently decreasing, your financial habits are something you can take control of. Logging your income vs. your spending is likely the most stressful part of this journey. However, after you do this, you can start to visualize ways to improve your financial state in a tangible way. There are programs and books that help with financial improvement and I’m hoping to share a few of those in my recommendations page and/or a totally separate blog post. Stay tuned for those.

Planning

You don’t have to be a master-planner or a super organized person to reap the emotional health benefits of planning and organizing. You simply need to find a system you can look forward to and keep up with.

While I am absolutely obsessed with planning (You guys, I use stickers, washi tape, colorful pens, and all the ridiculousness), planning does not have to be that complicated. It can entail the simplicity of to-do lists, writing down important times/dates (or putting them into your phone), and keeping a calendar handy (again, even a digital calendar).

Use some visual flair!

For those of you who enjoy creativity but loathe the idea of writing things down, using the aforementioned “ridiculousness” might actually help you look forward to doing this. Planning can be a creative outlet and for those who are visually motivated, using colorful tools like this will help you look forward to and enjoy looking at your week ahead.

Keep it Simple!

The simple act of checking things off of a list is “instant gratification”. For some of us, to-do lists are motivating while for others it is a necessary evil. Whatever the case may be, if you find a way that makes future planning less dreadful… and you use that method… you are on your way to improved mood.

The key here is to not make your lists very cumbersome. If you have a long list (I almost always have a long list as I wear many hats in my life as a business owner, counselor, wife, and mom), break that overwhelming list down into top priorities and focus on about 4 items at a time. When all four of those items are checked off, reward yourself with some down-time or leisure activity and then begin your next items (on a new short list).

Keep it in one place.

I’ve also found that for people on the go, little paper lists can get lost very quickly which adds anxiety to their days because “what if I forgot something”. What’s cool is that you don’t have to use paper… you can use your phone or even small wet-erase tablets (I have a few dashboards that are wet-erase snapped into my planner). Whatever you decide to use, make sure it’s something you know you’ll have with you a lot of the time.

Make it multi-functional.

An added bonus of using a planner is that you can add much of what you would have jotted down in the earlier mentioned journals into your notes section.

No matter what you do for this or how you do it, if you are finding a way to be prepared for the day ahead, your stress levels will decrease and your mood will improve.

Tracking Progress

Have you ever made a big goal for yourself and worked very hard at it only to feel like your labors aren’t producing results? If you keep up with a journal or planner at least a couple times daily, you actually will have a visual reference of the progress you have made. More often than not, when a person is using these tools regularly, productivity increases and consequently, improvements are made. In writing, a person is able to measure progress. A simple way to do this is to say “where was I 3 months ago” and go backwards in your planner/journal and then compare it to “where am I today”. For those tracking mood, you’ll see it in your emotion ratings. For those tracking weight, finances, exercise, etc… you’ll also see it in your numbers (assuming you use these strategies and write them down).

Did you just read all that and think “where in the heck do I even start?!”

If so, shoot me a message or leave a comment with what your goal in this journey is and maybe I can help you line it up. Just start somewhere… anywhere.

Don’t forget, I also have a list of recommendations on my website.

Supporting & Empowering Your Loved Ones who are Struggling.

Have you ever heard people compare emotional health with a bank account?

Basically, in order to be able to make emotional withdrawals (i.e. giving love and attention to other people without depleting oneself), a person needs to make emotional deposits (self-care, words of affirmation, connecting (CONNECTING) connecting… being validated… oh, and did I say connecting??).

If you have loved ones who have some type of emotional distress or a mental health diagnosis, you probably have tried to help them before… whether it was to validate them or to help motivate them or otherwise…

Here’s the thing. Sometimes the way we want to help people is often the way that we would want someone to help us (super cool that we do that… it’s that whole “Golden Rule: do unto others” rule. But in my years working with clients with a variety of mental health diagnoses, grief statuses, trauma symptoms, and general daily life stressors, one of the most common topics that clients bring up is that they feel alone despite others’ attempts to reach out: because the way in which someone is trying to help is not the way in which the person who is struggling prefers. My clients tend to be so grateful that people care to help at all and they typically know that the offers of assistance are very well-intentioned, however, approach and mindfulness matter.

Below, you will find a short list of ways to help your struggling loved one to not feel alone in a room full of people.

Validate their experience, don’t question it.

Even if you don’t understand it, validate it. There are huge levels of relief in validation.

For example, it is a giant milestone for some people with mood disorders (i.e. Depression, Bipolar Disorder), grief, & trauma symptoms to simply get out of the bed in the morning. While symptomatic, it takes considerable effort to get up, get dressed, and get out of the house to work/school. If they make it through their productive day and come home and crash without cleaning, cooking, or doing homework, they often report feeling guilty (adding to the depression/grief/trauma symptoms). And doing this with enough frequency will inevitably put them behind in housework/school work and that adds even more weight to their shoulders (and also the shoulders of whoever they may share a home with).

I can’t count the number of clients I have seen over the years who feel excruciatingly embarrassed by this pattern. They feel ashamed. Less than. Unworthy. And add those 3 feelings to a clinical diagnosis, the cycle worsens.

Don’t say: “Just wake up and do it and THEN take a nap.” (even thought that’s some good advice and might be doable).

Instead say: “I saw how much it took out of you to get through today. I know it wasn’t easy. Let me know how I can help because I also know the stuff around you is overwhelming. I see your effort.”

Don’t say: Why are you even depressed? What are you anxious about? You have nothing to be upset about. It’s in your head. (Please please please please please don’t say those things).

Instead say: I’ve never been where you are. Help me to understand what it’s like to live with {depression/anxiety/bipolar/PTSD}. I know from the outside it doesn’t always make sense. Help me see it from the inside.

Be Honest (and tactful) with your needs

Being supportive of someone does not mean enabling them. It simply means meeting them where they are and doing what is in your capacity to help them through it while not losing sight of your needs.

A big fear that my clients often express is becoming a burden on their family members when they go through symptomatic cycles. And they have that fear because they know it often happens…

Wait… keep reading…

It often happens… WHEN… their loved ones are not being honest with themselves and their loved ones about their own needs. In other words, without self-care, you’re going to begin to slide into unhealthy cycles of codependency (putting others’ wants and needs ahead of your own needs… it never ends well… don’t slide into that if you can avoid it).

Don’t say: Sure! I’ll clean every day this week for you because I know you’re exhausted and you’re having a hard time! (while meaning: I have SO MUCH on my plate I don’t think I can do it without staying up til the wee hours).

Do say: I’ll help where I can. I know I can get some dishes done. I need to get some sleep tonight so it’s okay if we don’t get it all done tonight.

Don’t say: You can’t do ANY of this stuff? Why does this always fall on me??

Do say: I’m here for you. If I can’t be, it’s not because of anything other than I need to take care of myself, too.

Offer an ear to listen… don’t demand a mouth to talk…

Simple as that… sometimes words can’t describe a whole lot of what people are emotionally going through… and since there’s often not a “reason” besides a clinical brain health issue, it makes it even harder to put into words.

Don’t say: What’s wrong….? What’s wrong? Why won’t you tell me? Just TRY! What’s wrong? Ugh you can’t get any better if you keep it all in!!…..

Do say: When you find the words, I’m here to listen and ready to try to understand. Just because I’m not asking you doesn’t mean I’m don’t care. I am always ready to listen… From what I understand, it can be hard to put into words. (and then leave it alone).

Encourage them to talk to their team

If your friend/family member has a doctor, a counselor, or any other professional that they are comfortable with already, remind them that you’re there for them, but sometimes it goes beyond your competency.

Don’t say: OMG go to your shrink!!!!!! I can’t HANDLE you! (I feel like if you’re reading this, you’re not a person to say something so harsh haha most people who would read a “how to best be there for someone” tend to be more compassionate.

Do say: Have you talked to your counselor about how you’ve been doing? This is hard and I want to be sure you’ve got someone who might be able to help more than me.

Don’t say: UGH just make an appointment already!!

Do say: Would it help you if I was with you when you called?

Being there sometimes is enough…

These aren’t the only ways to be there for your loved ones, however, these frequently appear on the “wish lists” of my clients who struggle… Hopefully these tips not only help you to help them, but also help you to take care of yourself in the process. Let your loved one know that you read an article about how to be supportive… and ask them what they would add and what they prefer! It’s a great ice breaker into this (difficult) conversation.

Job Stress & Your Mental Health

In the timeline of my own personal social media, I’m starting to see an influx of job-stress and burnout related posts. 

Before any of my friends or family frantically take down their posts in an attempt to not let me psychoanalyze you, don’t worry! I’ve been there, too! If you’re fortunate to have made it into adulthood at any level and have maintained steady employment, you’re bound to be tired…

But, when tired becomes fatigued and annoyed becomes cynical, you might need to take a step back and dive into some self-care.

But… but… but I’m too busy! I’m a parent and I work and I…

Excuses, excuses… I’m a working wife and mother, too… but as a mental health professional (which happens to be a very high burn-out career), I used to be the queen of those “I’m too busy” excuses. But what I learned very quickly is that I cannot do well at any of those things that are “so important” if I am not taking care of myself. Don’t “yeah, but” yourself into a chronic state of anxiety and depression that might otherwise be totally preventable.  

In this fast-paced world, it is no wonder that such a strong majority of my clientele comes to me with depression and anxiety symptoms that are stemming from job related stress.  While mental health diagnoses related to this can be avoided, once the symptoms set it, it is imperative that you take action.

Great news: the relief can happen relatively quickly and can be very low-cost…

I think some of my clients are surprised when I say to them “I bet you are anxious… you have a lot going on and you haven’t talked about any leisure activities.”  Lots of the responses to that statement (which I find myself to be saying a lot lately) are people downplaying the level of stress they actually have at work followed by reasons they can’t employ self-care.

I’m going to give you some “rules” to follow to try to help you get out of your work-stress funk and back into a work-home balance.

1.) If you feel drained, you are drained.  Get some sleep.  Your brain and body cannot catch up without it.  If you are in the “people” or “children” field (I’m looking at you, fellow therapists, teachers, nurses, parents, and retailers), you need even more sleep in order to recuperate than if you are crunching numbers in a cubicle.  Listen to your body and REST.

2.) If you insist on staying up late, do not allow yourself to do so for the purposes of work.  Stay up later to take some “you time” by reading, listening to music, meditating, praying, etc… and then go to sleep. “But I have a project due! I have lesson plans! Yeah but yeah but yeah but….” Stop. Try it.  Try not getting it all done at night.  It’ll get done.  What you will find is the better rested you are and the more leisure and relaxing time you take, the more productive you’ll find yourself to be during your normal working hours and the couple hours afterward. And… you’ll feel less annoyed in the process.

3.) Refrain from using substances like alcohol. No… for real… try. Stop laughing at me. Okay, stop crying. Really, it’s okay!! You’ll find that the skills listed above will help curb your craving for the “I had a horrible day (again for the 371st day in a row) I need a beer” beer.  I’m not saying you have to stop drinking forever and go to 12-step meetings and make amends and such (although, if that’s something you think you need to do, I know a thing or two about helping you to get there)… I’m simply suggesting that if it’s a drink to “help you wind down”, then it’s likely not going to give you as effective of results as leisure and self-care.  It’s actually going to make you feel more drained in the process.  Cut back and see how it goes.

4.) Incorporate some light exercise into your routine (or, if you’re a workout buff, don’t skip your scheduled routine.  It is so important to get your dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and other levels boosted when you’re feeling a little “crispy” about your job.

5.) Tell your boss.  If possible, take a couple mental health days.  Ask your colleagues for help if needed and use your company’s Employee Assistance Program benefits if you have them (if you aren’t sure, contact HR to find out).

6.) Go to a counselor if you are stuck.  Someone like me can validate your emotions but also encourage you and keep you motivated to get out of that rut.

7.) Don’t take it out on your customers/students/patients or your coworkers (this is tied into #5).  If you do this, your work relationships suffer, the pressure gets piled higher, and your burnout symptoms get way bigger.

8.) Try to refrain from the “complaining” life.  When your gratitude list is longer than your grievance list, the stress tends to actually dissipate.  Also, if you complain or vent to the wrong person, it might come back to haunt you professionally (and, you certainly don’t have time for that…).

Here’s the good news… in life, you always have choices.  You get to reevaluate whether you are wanting to add that level of stress to your life or whether a specific job or career is worth continuing if it becomes that toxic for you.  See what happens when you weigh things out.  Talk to someone you trust about it and let them help you weigh the pros and cons.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Ahhhh spring.

The song of birds is returning, breezes are coming through open windows, kids are able to go outside (every parent in the Midwest right now sighs an enormous sigh of relief in unison), grills are firing up, leaves are returning, and grass is shifting from dull browns and tans to bright greens.

Sounds amazing… except for if you struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) (more commonly known as Seasonal Depression).

Many people have the misconception that if a depression is seasonal, it is only happening in the cold and sullen months of winter.  Sometimes that can be the case.  However, my highest volume of new clients are flooding in during the spring (which is a trend I noticed during my practicum and every year since).  It was a trend that was often drilled into our knowledge base by our professors in grad school.  Spring is the highest risk time for individuals to struggle with SAD.

But, why? Why, with all of those beautifully refreshing things happening, would someone be at risk for seasonal depression?

Truthfully, there is no “for sure” reason for this but there are a couple of very strong theories (in the field of psychology, we deal with more correlations than causations as it is a science and an art… this is one of those cases).  Below are some theories and some suggestions of alleviation based upon the theories.

Vitamin D DeficiencyIf you live in a 4 season climate and you aren’t a winter-time outdoors person, you’ve likely had a major decrease in sunshine over the winter months.  Truly, people begin to avoid the outdoors in late fall and so by the time the air is fresh and the weather is tolerable enough to spend time in the sunshine again, it’s been 3-5 full months of not enough sunshine.  Since Vitamin D is the sunshine vitamin, we need those rays to penetrate our skin in order to have a healthy level of Vitamin D (which affects mood immensely).  Now, if you are fair skinned like me (I’m about as porcelain as they come), you’re likely not absorbing those rays even in the warm months because you’re lathering up that sunscreen (don’t stop doing that… nobody needs sun poisoning on account of Vitamin D).  For those who struggle with SAD regularly, I recommend your annual check-up take place at the end of Fall so that if you have low levels of Vitamin D (it’s found in routine bloodwork), your physician can let you know what supplements would work for you (or recommend an alternate treatment relating to light therapy). 

Decreased Levels of Serotonin Also due to the decrease in sunlight, it is not uncommon for levels of this mood-affecting neurotransmitter to drop.  If this is the case, your SAD is more severe during the winter than during the spring. Light therapy and psychotherapy are helpful in raising serotonin levels.  Also, exercise, healthy eating, meditation, laughter/creativity, and other healthy activities will help with a serotonin boost.  You might also consult with your physician about Vitamin B6 if you’re having a hard time boosting those levels with the typical self-care regimens. 

Circadian Rhythm & Melatonin ChangesThe circadian rhythm is essentially your body’s biological clock.  It helps keep a person in a healthy sleep-wake cycle in any given 24 hour day.  While sleep health is important all of the time, it is crucial to have a predictable and healthy sleep-wake cycle during the winter months as this is affected greatly by (once again) sunlight and, in this case, temperature. If you aren’t able to sleep, your melatonin levels are affected, which turns into a vicious cycle of a disruption in your circadian rhythm.  Talk to your physician about melatonin in this case, too.  It is also important to have good sleep hygiene.  If you have a difficult time falling asleep or staying asleep, it is suggested that you do not have screen time while in bed (phones, tablets, and TV’s do not need to be on while you’re in bed), you go to bed at the same time each night, and you turn your brain off prior to getting into bed.  If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and do something else in a different room (not screen-related) for about a half hour or until you’re tired and your brain is relaxed (whichever comes first). 

​​Crashing Hopes<——– Have you seen this meme about Winter being mad? That’s a thing in mental health. Long fight with the cold winter months… and then a ray of hope shines through with above freezing temperatures… but no… it can’t last… because we need another arctic storm. And another couple days of beautiful weather… more hope. BOOM! Fifty below zero wind chill the next 3 days.  And so on and so forth.  This hope coming and quickly crashing plays a large role in our mood overall.  The same suggestions as above will help with this.

Just like with anything else brain-health related, always consult with professionals like your physician and a counselor if you’ve noticed symptoms of depression and anxiety.  There are many things you can do for yourself for mood-related disorders, but there are also many avenues that we are trained in exploring with you. If you would like to schedule an appointment, call or click here to schedule online.

Five Quick Tips for Anxiety

Raise your hand if you’ve never been anxious… even just a little… 

Great news, I likely didn’t unintentionally embarrass any of you by making you raise your hand in public… because I’d be willing to wager that if you’ve even made it until your teenage years, you’ve experienced some type of anxiety.  It’s part of life!  

Anxiety serves a purpose – if only in the right dose at the right time.  When your heart skips a beat because the person in the car next to you swerves toward you… your anxiety is what alerts you to turn your wheel accordingly.  Your brain is wired to protect yourself and your loved ones… and that’s great!! But sometimes our brain becomes ridden with anxieties that aren’t life-saving, per say.

As a counselor, I’m frequently asked how to “get rid of” anxiety symptoms.  While I don’t have the magic cure for that, I do have ways to alleviate the symptoms, at least temporarily.  I also have some ways to be sure you are setting yourself up to avoid unnecessary stressors which would cause anxiety… those will follow in a different blog post. One step at a time.

For now, find below five ways to slow your heart and brain down when your anxiety is at its highest out of the blue.  I’ll start with things you can do without leaving the current setting you are in.

1.) Ground Yourself. No, not as in “You stayed out past curfew, you’re grounded!”… as in you’re using your five senses to plant your feet back onto the ground so that you can hold steady.  In this approach, you are stating facts to yourself by using your sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch.  You aren’t forming opinions or elaborating, you’re simply stating facts.  This is a distraction technique that brings you back to the here and now and brings you back to reality. So, to ground yourself, you’ll ask yourself (and answer) the following questions:

  • What do I see?
  • What do I smell?
  • What do I hear?
  • What do I taste?
  • What do I feel (physically)?

Answer each of these questions with as many responses as necessary until you begin to notice that physical feeling of a pounding heart, hot face, upset stomach, etc… go away.  It will take a few minutes but after you do that, your brain will have cleared up enough that you’ll have the ability to problem solve and plan next steps.  Grounding is a great tool to use if you tend to have anxiety at bedtime… it clears the brain so that your anxiety is not transferred to your sleep cycle. 

2.) Meditate.

Wait! Wait! Wait!!! I see you scrolling!!! Yes, Meditation is for you, too, Captain WigglesAlot! READ THIS! I promise you can do this!! (And no, it’s not all “ommmm….” and Yoga, either)…

Meditation is simply a way to be mindful about your thoughts.  Some of you are digging this already because you enjoy meditation and yoga… But for those skeptics out there, in this context, the purpose of meditation is simply to pay attention to your thoughts… and guide your thoughts to something desirable and/or neutral.  One simple method I teach my clients is the “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” method.  You’re simply singing a song in your head and paying attention to the words, the musical notes, the highs and lows of the sound, the stream of lyrics, and even picturing the song (stars, moon, night sky color, diamonds, a child in wonder and awe, etc…).  You’ll notice your mind wandering to your stressors so at that point you simply correct your thought process and guide it right back to that song.  Lather, rinse, repeat until you feel that heart rate decrease.  You don’t have to use that method, but there are many like-methods that will get you to a point of “meditative peace” that are just as simple.  

For a physical relaxation guide to meditation, google “videos for progressive muscle relaxation”… this is a method that is so effective that even high-energy folks (like, me) even seek this out to relax after using it just one time…

3.) Counting and Numbers Games.

I hate math.  And math hates me right back (well, that might be a little far-fetched considering I don’t think math has emotions…) but even I am able to come to a point of peace and relaxation using numbers games.  For some, simply counting while paying attention to breathing will help.  For others, it’s not enough.  A method that works for many of my clients (and for me, the math-hater, as well), is counting backwards by random numbers.  For example, if I know I’m really stressed, I will count backward from 350 in intervals of 8… So: 350, 342, (this third one made me have to think hard) 334, 326, 318, etc…. whoops, you guys, in having to focus so hard on that mental math (and I’m not going to lie, I had to hold my hands up to get to 342 and count with my fingers), I accidentally began to meditate… again, in this context, I became focused on my thought process and my goal and brought my other thoughts right back to my task of backwards counting.

Another form of using mental math to guide your thoughts and bring you back down to earth is to take a multi-digit number and add it up to make it equal one digit.  For example, Caim Counseling’s phone number is 309-648-6549… 

3+0+9+6+4+8+6+5+4+9=54 (that took me a LONG TIME to get to with using my head… my 1st grader probably got it quicker…54… 5+4=9. Simple strategy… 

4.) Coloring, Drawing, Listening to Music, & Leisure Reading.

Okay… do I need to tell you all about this?  I doubt it.  But, I will just remind you that dollar stores have a huge selection of coloring books and leisure activities produce endorphin’s, dopamine, & serotonin (which are responsible for helping your pleasure center and combating your grumpy center (that’s not a real term but it is now…).  Grab your favorite book or coloring book, get your Pandora going, and take some time to yourself.  If you’re wanting to go an extra mile, journal prior to your chosen leisure activity.  Journaling can be very therapeutic but can also be emotionally draining at times… so following up your journaling session with something relaxing and enjoyable will help to put those emotions in check and bring closure to whatever it was your mind was on.

5.) Exercise.

For some of us that means parking way extra far away at the grocery store… for others it means going on a 5 mile jog… it doesn’t matter how physically exerting the activity is, the point is to simply get our body moving… Anxiety brings out our fight, flight, or freeze response… sometimes your body is begging you to move!! If your heart is pumping and you are having a hard time sitting still, it’s time to take control over where and how your body is moving… don’t unintentionally pace your hallways… be intentional about it.  Go for a jog, do some jumping jacks, do some sit-ups, stretch, do whatever it is your body will allow you to do when its begging you to move.  Just don’t over-do it.  It’s good to warm-down afterwards if you exert yourself exceptionally hard… so grab your leisure of choice from number 4 and wind down afterwards.

Of course, there are several more options for self-soothing during anxiety.  However, these are some that are low-cost and effective.  I’ve found that the more you do these things while you’re not anxious, the easier it is to do them while you are.  And even better, the more you engage in leisure activities, the less frequently you will find yourself in high-anxiety situations.

Happy Wednesday, all!! If you need me, I’ll be packing up my laptop and reading a book.  But if you really need me for a session, you have my number (revisit option number 3 haha).

Ho! Ho! Holy Emotions!

The hustle and bustle of the holidays has sprung into action!! Black Friday now in the books, Small Business Saturday hitting the streets now… and holiday music filling the stores and radio stations for the next several weeks!! What a wonderful time of year… what great cheer we all have…

Except, that’s not always the case.

In this competitive and now overly-commercialized culture… it’s easy to put the whole weight of the world… er… in the case of the above picture, the whole weight of the Christmas Tree… on your shoulders in an attempt to make the holidays enjoyable for everyone in your world…

The problem that many people face during this time of year is that people put everyone’s joy and happiness into the forefront and often sacrifice their own joy and happiness… 

Why?

Here are the top reasons people report feeling down during the holidays (and all of them are a direct result of putting others’ wants ahead of one’s own needs).

1.) People go above and beyond to satisfy their families’ holiday wishes.  Whether this be where and when the festivities take place or what to get and how much to spend on gifts… in an attempt to be in the holiday spirit, people forget to say the healthiest word in their vocabulary: no.  Instead they say things like “Sure! We can be there!” “Yes! I’ll have it at my house!” “Not a problem, I’ll pack up my family and drive 6 hours each way…” and “Oh, yes! Of course you’ll get that newest technology, dear 15 year old child… because that totally quantifies my love for you!”  People are left struggling to make it to all their promised events, families grow tired (and grumpy) in an attempt to get to every location, and families struggle to make ends meet because they will feel guilty if they don’t get the gaming system that their all-star student athlete honor student totally deserves… 

2.) People (temporarily) ignore their boundaries. Toxic Aunt Shirley and her twice as toxic 5 kids are going to be at the family party… you successfully (and blissfully) have finally cut ties during the year… and then BAM!! HOLIDAY GUILT TRIPS eventually work on you… so you (begrudgingly) pack up your family to appease Grandma Esther (even though you see her every week like clockwork) and get the reward of Aunt Shirley pitting those 5 entitled kids against you and your family about that one time 12 years ago that she had a cold and you brought her soup with no crackers… her kids tell your kids how selfish you are and your kids tell them some words they probably aren’t allowed to say… and BAM!! HOLIDAY FAMILY FIGHT! All because of one forgotten (ignored because of feeling guilty) word… no. (I’m sensing a theme here… but don’t worry, it probably is done now…).

3.) Missing loved ones. Unfortunately, everyone who has lost someone special to them has had to suffer through trying to be happy during the first holiday (well, the first year of events and holidays… and then every year thereafter while grieving is still active) without their loved ones who have passed. Sometimes getting together is therapeutic for families during those holidays… and sometimes that void is so big that the gatherings are just filled with reminders that your loved one isn’t there.  It is excruciatingly painful… but in an attempt to get back to “normal”, people agree to go with the flow of this.  Sometime’s it is a great way to share memories with those you love.  Other times, it might not be a bad idea to skip this year… Yes, I said it.  Some people feel the need to skip the gatherings in order to more graciously survive the first year without… and that is not selfish. Unfortunately, in an attempt to please others, those who identify with the desire to skip this year are often met with an extreme level of guilt (whether it comes from within or whether it comes from well-intentioned relatives) when they request to do things differently this year.  And they go anyway.  There’s really no right way to have the first holidays after a loss… but my tip is this: take care of your needs first.  If going to a holiday gathering is what will fill your heart, do that.  If it will tear your heart to pieces, don’t.  Practice Self-Care!!!!

4.) Keeping Up with the Jones’s. Enough said.  Let’s just not.  Whether you have the finances to do that or not, don’t do the holiday gift-giving, tradition-keeping, vacation-planning, money-spending in an attempt to impress anyone.  If you’re a parent whose kids try to guilt you into competing with the “but Billy’s parents got him a gaming console and a tree house with heat and wifi and a bed and a maid” line… practice the famous line that your parents most likely said to you when you came to them with that outlandish type of request (er, demanding guilt trip)… Ready? Say it with me!! “I’m not Billy’s Parents!  *Whoa… it’s like your parents took over your voice box and said the thing you swore you would never say to your kids… and it felt… AMAZING!*  Again, magic word: no. While you’re busy trying to keep up with them, they’re busy trying to impress someone else… there is no winning in this game so just don’t play it.
 

5.) Being Far Away from Loved Ones. This one, like number 3, is super tough. It’s hard to feel like you’re missing out while everyone you know seems to have a way to get to their families.  And while there’s no duplicating your own family traditions and fun, there are local events that happen during the holidays that help those without local families to socialize and feel less isolated. See what events are local to you during the holidays (simple google search).  Reach out to local friends… they might have a Toxic Aunt Shirley on their hands and could use an “out”… or they might have an open door policy at their holiday gathering for friends who want to come, too!  I won’t pretend it’s the same as being where your first choice would be, but it beats feeling isolated…

Here’s the deal: Holiday Stress is a very real thing.  Whether your stress relates to the 5 reasons above or it relates to things that were totally missed here, it is real.  One thing that all of us can use a reminder about is that it is up to us and only us to keep our own light shining.  Being assertive with others with your needs is one of the surest ways to do just that without dimming the lights of others. So here’s your validation: you do not owe anybody anything during the holidays (or ever).  You only owe it to yourself to take care of your needs.  Do that.  It will feel right in the end… and your holiday emotions miiiiiight just be a little merrier.  And who doesn’t like merry?  I do!! I like it because I like smiling… it’s my favorite!

Mental Health & Educational Plans

Of the many professional reasons I decided to open up my own private practice, people are most surprised when I tell them this reason:

Students with mental health and substance use diagnoses are largely under-served in our schools… and I happen to enjoy helping parents learn how to advocate for their students.

I don’t think it is any surprise to parents and educators that kids and teens with mental health and substance use diagnoses are under-served… however, there aren’t a lot of mental health professionals in the area who are versed in educational policies (and laws)… and there are even fewer who actually will say they enjoy this element of their job.

Here’s the deal: after earning my Master’s Degree in Clinical Professional Psychology, I furthered my education in Educational Psychology. From 2004 until 2016, I spent a majority of my time either pushing in to schools as a therapist, working in the schools as part of a specialized team for students with Substance Use Disorder, or advocating for students with disabilities who needed more services.  From 2016 until I opened my practice recently, I have missed being involved in the process of getting students what they not only need, but what they are entitled to receiving.  While I’ve gone to bat for a few people during the last couple years in this domain, I haven’t reached the number of parents who I know can benefit from this… 

What I missed even more: watching my clients’ lives turn around in a positive direction once they received proper supports at school for their mental health and substance use diagnoses…

 

So… what do I want you to gain from reading this (you clicked on this for a reason…perhaps you are a parent with a student who needs services… perhaps you are an educator with a couple students you’re hoping to help… perhaps you work for a school district who is underfunded and you don’t know how to advocate for your students’ needs without the repercussions that come with “costing the district money”).

If a student’s diagnosis impedes his ability to benefit from traditional school settings and supports (in a public school, specifically), he will qualify for a service plan.

More often than not, unless another diagnosis (learning disability, ADHD, medical diagnosis) qualifies for an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), students with mental health and substance use diagnoses who need services would receive those accommodations by means of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (this is called a 504 plan).

While working with students and families in the schools, the most frequent barricades we faced were:

1.) School staff did not know that mental health and substance use diagnoses were protected under the Section 504.

2.) Schools reported they didn’t have enough money to provide such supports.

So, what can you do if you run into those barricades for your student? Reach out to someone like me (a professional who is well versed in educational policy or an educational advocate that might have had their own experience with children of their own… other parents are often an incredible resource).  Remind yourself that a district’s lack of funding (which is a sad reality for many schools in the State of Illinois) does not disqualify that district from having to meet your student’s educational needs.

If you’re thinking of advocating for your student, I encourage you to do the following:

1.) Compile a list of how his diagnosis impedes his ability to profit from school without supports.  Keep in mind, your student may seem absolutely adaptive at school, but when things like anxiety and depression are a factor, you might notice that they are utterly exhausted when they get home… and so homework and studying are seemingly impossible.  Your student’s school staff might think they’re simply being lazy… but you and your student know that the lack of energy is a function of the symptoms of his diagnosis.  

2.) Ask your student what types of accommodations he might find most helpful (i.e. a study hall, a note-taker, school counselor, extra time, advance notice on larger projects, etc…).  Bring those ideas to the table.

3.) Contact your school administrators in writing to request a meeting for a 504 (or IEP, depending on which he qualifies for)… 

4.) Though it is not a requirement for a 504 (it is for an IEP). bring supporting documents from his physician, counselor, case worker, former teachers, etc… that he does have a documented disorder/disability.  

5.) Audio Record your meeting (let them know you are recording) and request a copy of the summary of the meeting. A lot of this is daunting and overwhelming… having it recorded helps you to review what you went over.

6.) Know your rights… and know that you don’t have to agree on the services on the spot.  Ask when you are able to get back with the school with your answer as to whether those services are appropriate or not.  Review the meeting with someone who has some experience with this and see if anything is missed out.

7.) Don’t hesitate to reach out when you believe changes need to be made to plans that are already in place.  

Why did I miss this???? Because I missed how much I saw my clients grow after having proper supports in place at school… it’s incredible how much this can do for kids and teens.  

And, I must say, I’m glad to officially be back at it. (Even if some of my most frequented school districts are cringing at the thought of me walking back in… kidding… kind of…)

If you’re in Central Illinois and you have any questions about whether or not I can help your teen, please call me at 309-648-6549.

For more explanation on IEP’s and 504 Plans, the following has some good information:

Oh! The Mompologies!!

“Ope! Sorry! I’m just gunna sneak right past ya…”

Classic Midwesterner disclaimer sentence… I crack up every time I see this (oh so true) meme. 

But whether you add the “ope” or not… and whether or not you’re a fellow Midwesterner, if you’re a mom, you probably find yourself saying that second word… A LOT! 

sorry…

         SoRrY…

                   Sorry…

STOP SAYING SORRY!

                            Sorry… er… I’m not sorry… but sorry I keep saying it! …ugh…

So many things I hear moms apolgizing for… so many times per day… myself included!

So last week I made a promise to myself.

No sorries for random life happenings. 

No “sorry” My car is a mess (still). 

No “sorry” my child yelled at Target down the entire chips aisle (again). 

No “sorry” I’m wearing yoga pants (and not doing yoga…). 

No “sorry” after the word “no”.

No “sorry” after having to call in to work because of a contagious child who needs mom snuggles today… and who can’t go to school to spread germs anyway…

The mompolgy store is closed

Why? 

Because there’s no need to feel shame or guilt for doing your absolute best and still falling a mile short of perfect. And when we say words which are meant for remorse, our brain begins to believe that there is actually something to feel remorseful about… so that one simple word (sorry) can change your whole demeanor in such a negative way. 

It makes you believe yourself to be inadequate… unworthy… 

And simply put, the odds are those beliefs are most likely untrue. 

In the last decade, I’ve worked with countless moms (and dads… but this seems to be more of a mom epidemic)… and a large percentage of them struggle with depressive and anxious symptoms that seem to revolve around “unexplained feelings guilt and shame… and untrue beliefs of being inadequate”.

And guess what they all had in common… 

A severe case of Mompologies. 

Oh and I’ve been there, too. But I’m always amazed at the power of the brain and its self-healing powers… and those powers come from our thoughts and our words. 

So what do we say instead? 

Most of the time, nothing. 

The couple at Target have seen screaming kids before… they’re fine… they need no explanation. 

The coworker getting in your messy car likely knows you’re a parent… no explanation necessary. She also knows you have to be home with your sick child because at the very least it’s unlawful to leave your fever-ridden 8 year old home alone… no explanation necessary. 

The person who asked you to help them move (again) knows you’ve got a life and kids… no explanation after “I can’t help this time” is necessary. 

Your best friend knows that yoga pants, a hoodie, and a top knot (wash optional) is your uniform… no explanation necessary. 

No really, it’s that simple. 

We do not have to apologize for taking care of our needs above other people’s wants and comfort levels. 

You’re worth more than that. 

Odds are, I’ve caught a couple non-moms reading this post. Same rules apply. You don’t need to apologize for taking care of yourself either!! Nobody does. 

It’s funny… in the last couple weeks, by saying sorry less and less, I’ve found fewer things to say sorry about… even though not much else has changed. My 3 year old still cried down the whole chip aisle (she was scared of the picture of the fire on the spicy nacho chips bag I picked up…), I still wore my uniform and rode in my not perfectly clean car… I still said no when asked to do something I’d rather not do…and yet… my demeanor about it all was different. I had stopped Mompologizing myself into a neurotic state. 

And sorry not sorry… it has been totally worth it. 

(I’ll admit though, same Target run I “ope snuck past” someone… just left out the sorry…) 

Secondary Trauma & Vicarious Trauma

By the teenage years, many of us were familiar with the question “Where were you when….?”

Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?

Where were you when The Challenger exploded?

Where were you when Columbine happened?

Where were you when the Oklahoma Bomb exploded?

Where were you on 9/11?

Right now, in the wake of an insurmountable number of school shootings, during the current and ongoing crisis of Hurricane Florence, and in the midst of the information age, it seems that almost weekly, more disasters and tragedies are occurring for the world to see and wonder “will I remember where I was when this happened?”. 

While these tragedies and unthinkable acts directly affect many people, they indirectly affect us all (though on different levels).  Those of us who are indirectly affected by these events (meaning, we were not there nor were we in general vicinity, so our safety was not directly jeopardized) process these things on a spectrum of resiliency.  

Human beings, by nature, tend to be compassionate creatures.  When someone else hurts, we sometimes hurt for them as we put ourselves in their shoes.  During the age of internet and social-media, we find ourselves more often witnessing traumatic events of others at a more rapid pace than ever before. Whereas prior to the information age, terms like “secondary traumatic stress” and “vicarious trauma” were reserved more for those in the trauma fields (i.e. Mental Health Professionals), right now we are seeing an influx of individuals who are presenting traumatic symptoms who have not been directly affected by traumatic events… they simply have seen these events on the news and on social media.

So, what are Secondary and Vicarious Traumas?  Essentially, when a person who was not directly involved in a trauma experiences traumatic symptoms due to their heightened compassion for those who were directly impacted.

Secondary Traumatic Stress is when a person experiences traumatic symptoms suddenly after hearing about a traumatic experience of another person or other people. Whereas in the past, this person may have been able to put the tragic news of the day in its place, something about the triggering event sparked their brain to operate in the fight, flight, or flee response system.  In essence, a person who is experiencing Secondary Traumatic Stress has internalized the trauma of another person.

Vicarious Traumatic Stress, similarly puts an individual who is not directly impacted by traumatic events into a place where they have begun to internalize other individuals’ traumas.  However, this does not happen suddenly, as with Secondary Trauma, but more, over time.  After hearing about trauma after trauma, eventually an individual begins to transform gradually as they may be called to (and feel responsible to) to help those who are suffering.  

While the onset of each type of stressor is different (one sudden, one gradual), they share symptoms, care options, and preventative plans.

Symptoms Include

  • Difficulty talking about feelings
  • Disruption in Sleep
  • Change in Eating Patterns
  • Inability to stop thinking about the event(s)
  • Losing sleep due to thinking about the event(s)
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Loss of enjoyment in otherwise enjoyable things
  • Irritability
  • Unexplained Anger
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Loss of motivation toward goals
  • Decreased Personal Satisfaction

Care Options are similar to other mental health diagnoses like adjustment disorder, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.  

  • Put yourself first: give yourself permission to take time for yourself (at least a half an hour daily)
  • Challenge your racing thoughts: when you find yourself to “not be doing enough to help”, remind yourself that you are only one person and you can only do what you can do.  In other words, help where you can but give yourself some grace and don’t be afraid to put yourself first… you can’t fill someone’s cup with an empty pot. 
  • Exercise: do not underestimate the power of physical activity on the brain.  You don’t have to run a marathon… it can be as simple as stretching or walking down the street and back.  Just move (your serotonin, dopamine, and endorphin levels will thank you).
  • Eat healthy: no… I’m not saying to change your entire lifestyle to some fad-type super diet.  Just incorporate some added healthy foods to your day. If don’t eat a balanced diet daily, just add something to it bit by bit  (it may evolve into something more balanced but add a banana to your fast food to start… it’s a step forward).
  • Talk to a friend: As long as you fight against the urge to not talk, that’s helpful.  
  • Talk to a professional: If you’re still feeling stuck, see someone who is skilled in helping people through this while validating that your emotions surrounding a trauma you weren’t directly impacted by are real (and that you’re not over-reacting).
  • Turn off the news (and news feed) and STOP GOOGLING the event: in order for our brains to start to heal from trauma, we have to be able to detach from it (at least for the time being). Trauma symptoms are like a forest fire… it starts with a spark and spreads and it difficult to contain).  We wouldn’t advise the fire department to keep lighting matches and we don’t advise our friends, family, and clients with trauma to keep sparking the triggering events in their brains. This does not make you any less compassionate… it just makes you able to care for yourself so if the situation arises for you to be able to help out, you are able to do so. 
  • Meditate: For real, it helps… like, a lot. A lot a lot. You don’t have to “om” to meditate.  You can do something as simple as think of a song and focus on the notes, the words, the volume, etc… and when your mind wanders, bring it back. You can count by 3’s (or if you’re mathematically inclined, by 12’s or 7’s or 23’s).  The key with meditation is to simply catch your wandering thoughts and bring it back to what you are choosing to be focused on.  

Prevention Options: The best information on prevention I’ve been given is to always participate in self-care and to limit your willing exposure to traumatic events.  This is especially true for those who are predisposed to traumatic symptoms as well as for those who may not have the capacity to adequately process these types of events (i.e. kids & teens and those with developmental and cognitive disabilities).  If you have someone in your household that might be more at risk for developing traumatic symptoms, turn off the news, watch your discussions, answer questions honestly but developmentally appropriately, and be there to listen (without judgement) if they end up experiencing these symptoms.

In short, as with any type of self-care, it starts with self.  It is not selfish to attend to your needs first, it is healthy. Sometimes people are able to attend to themselves with their small tribe of people, other times, it might be helpful to include a professional.  Do what is right for you and the rest will start to fall into place. 

Counseling: It’s not what you see on TV

When I began my journey into private practice, one of the fun parts was furnishing my office.  From the decor to the coffee station and down to the furniture.  I have a smaller space because I like to keep things cozy and so what I had become used to in agency life (3-4 chairs, a table, a desk, etc…) was not in the cards for a cozy office space.  I found myself with the need to put a couch into my office.  In that moment, my “TV Therapist” radar went bonkers!

A Couch… the tell-tale of a TV “shrink”… from the days of The Bob Newhart Show to the modern day Chicago Med office of Dr. Rhodes, viewers would always find the therapist in a chair and the client sprawled out on a sofa.  Even as a child watching the Bob Newhart show, I remember thinking “I don’t want to lay down on someone’s couch to talk about my life… I want to sit up and have a conversation!! And how many people lay on that couch every day?! GROSS!” 

I settled with a love seat.

My family and friends came to see my new office months before I would open my doors to my clients.  Do you know how many people came in and said “you need a bigger couch for people to lay down in!!”

That’s how it dawned on me that I need to probably clarify for those who have never been in therapy that this is not what you see on TV!

We don’t ferverously jot down secret notes on a legal pad that you are not allowed to see. (I might take down some notes here and there so that I can keep track of important things in your life… but you are always allowed to see those notes…).

We don’t always say things like “and how does that make you feel?!” (though I have caught myself a time or two asking that very question… and cringing about being a TV stereotype).

We don’t tell you what to do or give advice.  For real.  We don’t! (We do offer to brainstorm solutions with you).

We don’t make you do things you don’t want to do or are not ready for. (We do challenge you to try those things you brainstormed with us).

We don’t hug you while you sob yelling “IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT” over and over, Good Will Hunting Style (though that was an amazing Ah-ha moment for Will… and now I need to go re-watch that movie).  Though, now that I think about it, we do tend to say some awkward things a lot more frequently than the general population (personally, I’m not much of a hugger in the therapy world, so when I say awkward things, it’s not likely to happen during a prolonged embrace like in that movie).

We don’t go home and tell our family and friends about what we heard in the office today (and, speaking for myself, after over a decade in the field, not much shocks me anymore… and no, your story won’t be the craziest story I’ve ever heard and it won’t scare me away from working with you next week).We aren’t on call 24/7 like the TV therapists and your friends (see my blog about friends vs. therapists).  But we will see ya next time and celebrate how you got through those trying moments between sessions!

And finally, we aren’t emotionless judgmental robots who stare at you knowingly and then say some sort of profound jargony phrase that is going to raise your eyebrows.

We are caring & compassionate human beings who were called into the helping field and chose to delve into academia to mix our heart with our minds so that you can have the quality service that you need.  We aren’t always right.  We tell you when we aren’t right.  We encourage you to tell us when we are wrong.  We work with you, side by side, toward a common goal: your goal (not ours). 

So, when you come to my office, choose your seat… chair or love seat, I don’t mind. I’m just sorry if I’ve shattered your dreams of sprawling out in Bob Newhart’s office.

Why choose counseling as a means to better your life?

As a licensed mental health practitioner, I often am faced with answering questions that I never thought I’d ever hear…

“What’s the most interesting case you’ve ever had?” (See point 1.)

“Isn’t it depressing to hear such negative things all the time?” (See point 2.)

“Don’t you have to be really sick to have to go to counseling?” (I’ll answer this one here… nope. You can simply be having a hard time coping with life stressors… you don’t even have to have a clinical diagnosis to walk through my doors… ).

“Are some people just beyond help?” (See point 3.)

… and my (not so) favorite…

“Why would someone pay someone else to tell them what they want to hear? Don’t they have friends to do that?” (See point 4.)

And my favorite myth: “It’s too expensive…” (See point 5.)

Below, you’ll find 5 reasons to choose counseling as a catalyst for positive change in your life.

1.) The first reason is that a good therapist is objective and confidential. This means that the answer to the first question goes unanswered when people ask us. In other words, a therapist who follows HIPAA and other privacy laws will not ever disclose your story or anybody else’s. We look at the difficulties brought to us from a professional, clinical, and solution-focused view and help our clients to come up with their own means of problem solving. While there are some fascinating things about brain health and behaviors, generally, the most interesting thing about my job is seeing all the different ways that my clients are resilient. I think the reason that people ask me to disclose such confidential things (repeat: I never would) is because they see counselors on TV write things down, keep them secret from clients, and (illegally) tell the world all about what that client said… This is not how it is in real life. (For more on how a real therapist is different than the TV and Movie therapists, see this post).

2.) Related to resilience, contrary to popular belief, providing a safe and confidential environment for people to improve their lives is far from depressing (See what I did there? I don’t listen to depressing things all day… I watch growth every day) . I consider myself to be one of the lucky few who were called to help others. Daily, I get to see people fill their own lives with hope and joy. This is especially rewarding because people choose to include me in their journey of self-empowerment. Now, that’s not to say that my office is filled with sunshine, rainbows, and ice cream (though it is filled with coffee and comfortable seating, so that’s a plus), but more so, my office is filled with people who often come to me during their darkest times and let me walk with them until they find their own contentment, hope, peace, and happiness. It’s a process. And those who seek out therapy are some of the bravest people I have ever encountered for being up for that challenge. Nothing depressing about that, in my humble opinion.

3.) Nobody is beyond hope. Read that again.

Nobody.

Is.

Beyond.

HOPE.

I’ve come to a point in my career where I am aware of my competencies and aware of when it is best to refer my client to other specialists in the field. I am a firm believer in allowing a client to choose the path and people who will surround them to help alleviate their mental health symptoms. What that means is that some of my clients come to therapy and that is the entire boost that they need. Many people come to therapy and allow me to collaborate with their physician, psychiatrist, neurologist, and other healthcare professionals in order to put their best treatment plan into place (this is called “collaborative care”). The point is, everybody’s needs are different when it comes to emotional health. Some people’s journeys take a lot more time. However, when somebody reaches out to me (or anybody else in their life) for help to overcome their difficulties, that ability to reach out is derived from hope. And with that hope, we can work together to build more hope and from that hope, I see my clients begin to grow and thrive in their journeys.

4.) Why go to a therapist instead of a friend? My answer: why not go to both? Nobody has to limit who they problem solve with. In fact, the more a person is networked with healthy and supportive friends and family, the more a person can grow and succeed. That said, there are some things that many of us want to keep private. And there are some times when we know that what we want to hear is not always the same as what we need to hear. Above, I talked about confidentiality and objectivity being one of the major appeals of therapeutic services. Sometimes, the purpose of a therapist is to validate one’s thoughts and actions while other times it is our job to challenge one’s thoughts and actions. Our specialized training helps us to do so in a genuinely judgment-free and empowering fashion. (For more, please see my post about the difference between a friend and a therapist, here).

5.) Most major insurance plans now cover mental health services. Not long ago, only the rich and famous were found in therapy offices. But with psychology being more integrated into the medical community, insurance companies have grasped on to the evidence that emotional health and physical health are positively correlated. Meaning, when people’s mental health improve, often times their physical health will improve as well. So, it is cost-effective for insurance to include professional counseling as part of the benefits (which, in turn, makes it cost-effective for people to go). For a list of the insurance companies I currently accept, please visit my FAQ’s page, here.

The difference between a friend and a therapist

One of the best reasons to visit a qualified mental health professional is to give yourself the opportunity to talk freely without judgement to an objective person.  One thing you may not know is that ethically, therapists are not allowed to be friends with their clients.  This is something that has been confusing to recipients of mental health counseling, especially in the era of social media.  As a therapist, I believe a therapist’s strong boundaries are critical in the therapist’s ability to give their client quality services.  Below, you’ll find some clarification on what these boundaries mean (as well as what they do not mean) for the client.

Strong Boundaries do not Equal Lack of Care and Concern

A therapist with strong boundaries has the ability to be focused solely on the needs of their client.  This is the unique way that a therapist cares for their clients.  Part of these boundaries are legal and ethical boundaries.  For instance, as a client, you are protected by privacy laws and a therapist may not disclose any part of your journey, including your enrollment in the counseling services, to anyone without your written consent or unless it is a safety concern. Ethically, licensed therapists, like me, are not allowed to have what’s called a “Dual Relationship” with a client (more on that later).  These boundaries give clients a safe place to talk about vulnerable topics without fear of other people finding out.  

Friendship is a Two-Way Street

Perhaps the simplest way to differentiate between a friend and a therapist is to make note of the fact that in a healthy friendship, there is give-and-take.  Both parties lend and receive support. 

Therapy is a One-Way Street

As opposed to a friendship, the primary focus of therapy is the client.  You, as the client, are the consumer.  This means that your journey will not be interrupted by a therapist’s cognitive and emotional needs.

Dual Relationships are Not Safe for Clients

While your therapist might feel like a friend to you, this is most often because they are 100% there for you without interrupting your process with their own issues.  You have their undivided attention and because of that, many clients not only feel like their therapist is their friend, but that they are their best friend.  And really, that makes a lot of sense to think this way.  Who doesn’t like and need the focus on them during difficult situations? But, again, this is solely because your therapist has good boundaries.  Should a therapist cross the line between being a professional counselor and being your friend, customer, or otherwise, they are putting your emotional health in harm’s way.

Why?  Because during the therapeutic relationship, a therapist begins to learn things about you that are very vulnerable.  An unethical counselor could use this information to their advantage.  The friendship role cannot be built upon a foundation of therapy as it is again very one-sided.  In order to not compromise the integrity of the therapeutic process for you, it is imperative that we professional counselors maintain our boundaries with you so that you can make the healthiest gains possible.  This not only means that we can’t hang out outside of our sessions, but also we cannot connect on social media, through personal phone, text and email exchanges, and we cannot seek out your professional services from you for our personal gains.  Avoiding the dual relationship not only protects your therapeutic process, but also your confidentiality.  

Friends Respond to Your Wants while Therapists Respond to your Needs

Simply put, when you’re having a bad day, your best friend will likely console you, meet up with you, and sympathize with you.  Your therapist will help you process what happened and help you to brainstorm what you have control over so that you may find a solution.  They empathize with you and help you to brainstorm how to get through.  Your therapist might also ask you some tough questions: questions that are not always typical of a nurturing friend.  Sometimes therapists ask uncomfortable things that others in your life will not ask you because they do not want to add to your discomfort.  However, the very function of therapy is to change and change is uncomfortable (and can be downright excruciating).  We would not be providing you with a catalyst to change if our response always resembled the “there, there, it’s okay” approach of a friend.  

My hope in writing this was to give you a small glimpse into they “why’s” of therapeutic boundaries.  When your therapist turns down your invitation to hang out, be a friend on social media, or buy your product, they truly are not doing so because they don’t like you or don’t think you provide a quality service… they are doing so because they care about your therapeutic growth.