‘Tis the Season for Joy and Gratitude – Using Gratitude to Unlock Joy

Christmas_ornaments

If only feelings of joy and gratitude were synced to a calendar. That would certainly make the holiday season an easier experience, at least for some. Constant messages all around us suggesting we must feel joy and be grateful can seem pressured, leaving us feeling inauthentic in our efforts to make our lives look like a Norman Rockwell picture.
It might help to consider that any feelings (even joy) stem from our thought-life. We can change how we feel by changing the way we think!  Re-training our brain to think differently can take some time. The good news is we can move closer to a healthy thought-life by practicing the behaviors that are associated with feelings like joy.  In fact, there is evidence that practicing gratitude can unlock our joy!  No prerequisite feeling needed! The feeling will follow the intent and action.
So how do we practice gratitude? Consider the following actions you can take. Begin during this holiday season and carry these new rituals into the new year!
  1. Begin a gratitude journal – I know it may sound cliche’, but the research is showing us that significant positive changes in our brain chemistry take place when we just think about what we might be grateful for! Try it for a month. At the end of each day, spend 15 minutes thinking about 3 things for which you are truly grateful.
  2. Voice your appreciation for something – Even the smallest of compliments to someone else, or voicing how grateful you are that a much needed rain fell last night can begin to re-shape how we think and shifts our perspective about our world.
  3. Eliminate complaining – What a challenge! I encourage you to try it! Commit to going one day, or even a whole week, without voicing complaints and see how you feel!
  4. Look for the lesson in an otherwise annoying situation – Since we can’t control what situations or toxic people come our way, we can strive to change how we experience that event or person. Always look for what you can learn in any given scenario. It shifts your thoughts from the negative to the positive.
  5. Make gratitude a habit – Because gratitude is a choice of thought and not an emotion, we can make the practice of it a daily routine in our lives. Creating a healthy habit of practicing grateful thoughts can sustain us through difficult times.  Because it’s not a feeling, we don’t have to wait for it to rise up in us randomly or spontaneously. We can summon the habit of gratitude by practicing some form of it each day.

Remember that gratitude is an attitude rather than an emotion. Stressful events can certainly steal our joy for a time, though an intentional shift of our attitude back to gratefulness can help us regain or retain that joy, despite our circumstances. Victor Frankl, a well-known psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor thrived during one of the most egregious seasons of his life (and in our world’s history) by realizing that the Nazis could take away everything from him – including his life – everything but one thing. That one thing was his attitude.  Our attitude is our way of thinking about a situation. Regardless of what’s happening around us, we get to choose it. This awareness helped Dr. Frankl hold on when there was no concrete hope on which to hold. We can do the same.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”    ― Viktor E. FranklMan’s Search for Meaning

Finding joy is a unique journey for each of us since a person’s joy is created by very personal experience. However, there are common steps we can each take on our journey that can help us reach the desired destination of feeling more joy. While joy is never a permanent state of being, taking these steps can ensure it comes more than it goes. I certainly wish you peace and strength on your journey – and of course, joy and gratitude in this season and for many seasons to come!

 

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6 Tips for Managing Difficult Emotions During the Holidays

christmas_bauble

There is no shortage of information written about coping with the holiday season.  That’s because there’s no shortage of people feeling extra stress this time of year.  Yet many people will cower in the darkness of an emotional corner before reaching out for support.  Following all the tips on the Internet for coping with the holidays won’t guarantee a stress-free season. Yet, there are some simple ways to manage the more distressing emotions that come during this time.  Consider these 5 steps for managing holiday woes.

1. Eliminate untrue self-talkCommon statements we tell ourselves that create isolation are:

“No one would understand how I’m feeling”This is simply untrue. There are universal experiences that connect us as human beings. Periods of deep sorrow, loneliness, depression, or anxiety are some, to name a few. While it might be true that your life includes uncaring persons, you can also find a number of people who are gifted to show compassion when you’re in need. Counselors, pastors, and chaplains feel truly called to listen. If you’ve not shared these isolating thoughts and feelings with your family or friends, try that first. You might be surprised to know they’ve been down that road themselves.

“I don’t deserve someone to care about me”This is a ‘shaming’ thought and may be a symptom of depression. It’s also untrue. Shame can isolate people. The first thing that shrinks shame is disclosing it to someone. Connection shrinks shame. So, battle that thought by stopping it in its tracks.

2. Find a support group – Many local chapters of mental health associations sponsor support groups for people with various concerns. Your local hospitals or certain churches may also offer the same type of connections. It can be scary to connect with new people, though research shows group support is an effective way to cope with many life issues!

3. Do something! Starting a new hobby or lifestyle choice can shift our thoughts and build our emotional immune system. A few possibilities include:

  • Reading a new book – can’t afford one? It’s okay – your local library will let you borrow them for free!
  • Take walks – walking is known to relieve stress, lower blood pressure, and can clear your mind of negativity! Got a park or small forest nearby? Even better! Research shows being around nature has great healing power!
  • Learn something new – Whether it’s speaking a new language, learning how to garden or play the piano, learning new things keeps us mentally fit and adds to our overall emotional wellbeing!

4. Commit random acts of kindness – Giving of ourselves benefits us just as much as the person we’re giving to! Even a simple gesture of kind words to someone who might be having a bad day can make a difference. Remember to be equally kind to yourself!

5. Search for the spiritual meaningFor many, the holiday season, especially Christmas, is a time to reflect on and celebrate valued spiritual beliefs. Some studies show that connecting with one’s spiritual self can bring a sense of peace and help a person find purpose in life. There is evidence that exercising one’s spirituality helps to build resilience and overcome the effects of a traumatic event.  If you find yourself feeling negative about connecting with spirituality because of bad experiences with religion, consider that spirituality and religion are not necessarily the same thing.  While religion is a particular system of beliefs, spirituality is more personal and without the dogma that often leaves people feeling guilty and shamed.

6. Gain perspective – The holiday season is temporary. Its value comes from the meaning we assign to it. For some, it’s a time of spiritual celebration. For others, the focus is on family and friends. For you, it might be a time for reflection and personal growth without getting caught in the trap of commercialized mayhem. You get to decide what the season means to you.

I hope you find these tips helpful. I wish you a peaceful Christmas and restful holiday season.

This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you find yourself struggling to manage challenging thoughts or moods during this time of year, contact your primary care physician or seek the support of a licensed mental health professional.

Posted in Christmas, Counseling and Mental Health, Holiday Stress, Resilience, Self Help | Leave a comment

From Panic to Peace

COPING WITH A PANIC ATTACK

During a panic attack you are likely to breathe more quickly or more deeply (or both) than you usually do.  This will have the effect of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide you have in your lungs, which in turn will give you a bunch of unpleasant feelings in your body** and may make you feel strange. These feelings can make you feel more frightened because if you don’t know what is causing them you will tend to think the worst – that something awful is going to happen to you. That type of thought makes you more frightened, which will probably make you breathe more, which will increase the unpleasant sensations, making the frightening thoughts seem more real, and so on. The vicious circle of fear leading to over-breathing, leading to frightening physical sensations will cause more fear and so on.  The process looks much like the diagram below:

IMG_2740

It is possible to get control over this process. To do this, you have to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in your lungs. The best way to do this is to change both your breathing and the way you react to the body sensations when they occur. This involves breathing less air at times when you start to get the physical sensations that go with an attack.

These steps can also be helpful in situations where you expect to get frightened or have these feelings. Then you can possibly stop the panic attack altogether.

It is usually best to start with small steps. Try the sequence below. You may need a slightly different sequence, but it will be similar.

  1. Take the steps slowly. First, notice carefully just what it is you are feeling, what happened just before the feelings started. What were you doing? Where were you? What symptoms do you have now? Rather than being fearful of the panic attack itself, accept that it is has happened.

Every time you panic it is an opportunity to learn more about what happens and how to gain control over your anxiety.

  1. Notice your breathing. Is it fast? Is it deep? Are you sighing a lot?
  2. Try to breathe smoothly, regularly, slowly, and gently in the pattern you learned with your therapist.
  3. Notice what’s going through your mind. What do you think is the worst thing that could happen right now?
  4. Remind yourself that breathing quickly has almost always resulted in similar physical sensations and frightening thoughts.
  5. Continue to breathe as gently as you can at the sort of speed you learned from your therapist. You may find it helpful to remember the calm voice your therapist used when teaching you the deep breathing exercise; focus on this memory as you control your breathing.
  6. As you slow down your breathing, you will notice that you will want to breathe more deeply. Try not to let this happen too much. Remember, the ideal pattern you are aiming for is smooth, slow, regular breathing in a way that doesn’t allow you to over-breathe.
  7. If you have managed to slow down for a few seconds but feel out of breath you will often want to take big gulp of air….try not to. Resist it by swallowing several times. If you find you have taken a gulp, hold it for 5-10 seconds and then let it out slowly. Then go back to breathing as before. This may help prevent taking a gulp, increasing your anxiety.
  8. As the breathing is reduced, notice what happens to the body sensations.   As they get less because of your breathing control, think about what this tells you. Does it mean that the sensations were caused by the things which you were more afraid of, or is it more likely that what is happening is the vicious circle of body sensations → frightening thoughts → over-breathing → more body sensations → more frightening thoughts → and so on? Would you expect to control your thinking and breathing to stop the symptoms if you were seriously ill and in danger? To sum up, breathe in and out as slowly and evenly as you can and avoid any big increase in depth as you do.

Notice the thoughts of disaster that happen when panic starts and which add fear to the symptoms, then remind yourself that the symptoms are, in fact, signs of a harmless but frightening change in breathing. Reducing your breathing is both useful and harmless and will start to give you some control over the panic attacks.

You may want to work on preventing the most severe attacks before they happen, but until then, take heart and know that a panic attack is temporary. While it has its own set of symptoms, you’ll want to confirm with a qualified medical professional that they are not indications of a medical issue that needs attention from a doctor.

** Most common symptoms include some combination of the following:

  1. Tight chest and shortness of breath
  2. Sweating
  3. Heart racing and/or palpitations
  4. Dizziness/feeling faint
  5. Hot or cold flushes
  6. Numbness or tingling
  7. Weak legs
  8. Feeling shaky

If the doctor has ruled out medical issues, consider contacting a therapist who can help you uncover the root cause to your panic and offer solutions that work for you!

Note: The information in this article is not meant to replace a full assessment by a qualified medical or mental health professional.  Please always see your doctor to rule out the need for further medical treatment.

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You Can Cancel Christmas If You Want

golden christmas card

With the Thanksgiving holiday complete, we’ve now approached one of the biggest hurdles of the year for some people – the holiday season.  For many people, the season can trigger its share of painful memories.  I’m no different.  The holidays can trigger difficult emotions and even despair for me, if I allow.  If I allow.

I recently saw a client who struggles with the holidays. Her family has been less than forgiving of her individuation since she became an adult.  Coupled with the shadow of their own unhealed emotional wounds, interactions with them serve to harm my client more than comfort her. There are years when she’s too exhausted from work-related travel to turn around and travel 4 states away for Thanksgiving. Christmastime becomes an Olympic sport of dodging their harsh criticisms of her. Thankfully, she’s created a small circle of friends with whom she enjoys time and, over the years, her preference has been to skip the family gatherings and join those friends. This year after she announced to her parents she would not be traveling to their home for Thanksgiving, they offered up a plate of holiday shame and sent her into a tailspin of guilt. Being an only adult child of aging parents, she fears they will keep their threatened promise of cutting off all contact with her if she doesn’t succumb to their wishes. Let me be clear. They are threatening to permanently cut off all contact if she doesn’t share this one particular meal with them. In fact, they refused to speak to her for several days after her announcement. She called me in tears and panic.

…..…the season can trigger its share of painful memories and even despair for me, if I allow. If I allow.

After we spent some time helping her ground herself and manage the overwhelming anxiety, she asked me if she could cancel Christmas this year. “Can I just cancel Christmas, please?” I swiftly replied that she could do whatever she wanted. After all, she’s grown. We both chuckled at our exchange. She frequently seeks my “permission” to make choices for her life. I frequently remind her doling out permission is not my role as her therapist. Our conversation reminded me of the many adult clients I’ve worked with over the years who wrestle with the holiday season. So many events can taint our experience. After years of pretending to be joyful, a common defense is to become cynical. We can easily confuse the pretense of our existence with the thought that a holiday is meaningless. That’s okay.  It can be meaningless if we choose it to be. We control our own value system. Frankly, a holiday, or any day of the year, can be exactly what we want – what we allow it to be. Don’t get me wrong. Mood illnesses like clinical depression or anxiety can make it difficult for anyone to enjoy life. Those moods can convince us to cancel choice as an option for how we cope. Traumatic memories can feel like a dictator that strips us of all choice. The ultimate manifestation of that would be to make one final choice and take our own life.  I’m thankful that my client has not latched on to the ultimate final choice for herself.  She ultimately decided on giving herself time alone and space to create her own holiday traditions, replacing shame with healing and kindness. She continues to fight back and learn more effective ways to cope. I encourage you to know you can fight back with your own permission to be healthy.  That might mean spending a holiday away from family.  It might mean setting boundaries.  It might mean leaning in to those difficult gatherings and learning you can survive. You get to choose. Of course I hope you always choose adaptive, healthy ways to manage life. Choices that leave you feeling free of burden and grateful for another day.

Traumatic memories can feel like a dictator that strips us of all choice. I encourage you to know you can fight back with your own permission. You get to choose.

There’s no shortage of recommended lists on the Internet for “how to cope with the holidays”. So I won’t be posting another one for you. Okay, maybe I’ll post one short list. I can’t help myself. Truthfully, though, none of those lists will do you any good unless you choose them. If you’re struggling with the holiday season, take time to consider how you’d like to cope. I choose to enjoy them as a way of finding meaning in my life. My value system includes faith-based beliefs that help. Yours might not. You choose. You can even cancel Christmas if you want. Just don’t cancel choice.

Click on the link below to see my recommendations for how to effectively cope with the holidays.

Coping with the Holidays

Posted in Christmas, Counseling and Mental Health, Grief, Self-Acceptance | 1 Comment

When Your Therapist is Just a Person

Office

Periodically, a psychotherapy client will ask me if I’ve ever been in therapy for myself. They are sometimes curious at my comfortable response of “Why, yes, of course”.  Some test the boundaries and would like to hear details of my own experience in the client’s chair – if only to distract from the discomfort created by any focus on their own pain.  I offer very little of my experience as a client.  The space and time for each of my clients is imperative to the outcome of their well-being.  Crowding their hour with my story is not likely to help them.  It’s natural, though, for them to wonder. It’s as if somehow my testimony serves as my expertise in helping with their issue.  However, a surgeon doesn’t need to have a history of his or her own heart transplant in order to help me with mine.  I was trained and mentored by wonderfully gifted clinicians who taught me well how to use self-disclosure only if it may benefit a client’s healing.  Any other use of that disclosure would be negligent.  While keeping my self completely “out of the room”, as purists in the field would insist be done, is unrealistic, I do take great strides in keeping that space (the therapy hour) as open and clear as possible for my clients.  Albeit, the world of technology has added the challenge of remaining completely anonymous as a whole person who sometimes is, just that, a person first and therapist second.

Coupled with my own love for writing and a choice to use it as a tool for maintaining psychological and spiritual balance, the dilemma for me and my colleagues who also write or blog is how to handle the tenderness of complete authenticity and the boundaries of trust and confidentiality.  Both my openness and the boundaries that legally and ethically bind me to do no harm to my clients are of equal importance.  There would never be a time I would write anything that discloses identifying information about a client.  However, the issue of them trusting that assurance, or trusting me fully once getting a glimpse into my own psyche, is more complicated and always deserves attention.  It’s possible the issue would never surface because I’m not sure any client or potential client would ever read my blogs. However, so precious is trust between two people, both personally and professionally, the risk of that trust being broken must be managed.  That’s why it deserves continual consideration.  Yet, as I respond to the suggestion of friends and colleagues to offer a more public version of myself through writing, I find myself considering how this might affect those who come to me and offer their trust in me as their story-keeper.

So, I am compelled to address these ideas openly – in part, to continue my quest for self-exploration and growth, and possibly to help someone else on their own journey. The short version of my thought process –

Yes, I’ve been to therapy as a client – in part, because my mentors insisted I trust my own profession enough to use it in maintaining my own psychological health.  I discovered the sacredness of that safe space to consider myself wholly and honestly.  On occasion, you may see a reference to my own experiences in “the other chair” if I am moved to make those disclosures a part of my growth.

As a mentor of young clinicians I strongly encourage the idea that, in order to be your best professional self for those who seek your help, you must ensure your personal self is along for that ride to health.  The two parts of you as therapist and person are never completely separated, ever.

If you are my client and reading this – know that your best interests are always in the forefront of my mind.  And if seeing my thoughts “out there” in the world brings you discomfort, you can always talk with me about it so that any compromise to your own growth as a person is eliminated.

It’s an interesting position to be in – person/therapist/person/therapist. Some days it scares me to hold the stories of others in that space. What if I misstep and cause, albeit unintentional, pain? Most days, I’m completely honored that my clients trust me with the most tender, vulnerable parts of themselves. Always, I’m in awe of the human spirit and it’s capacity to survive.  To that end, I hope to offer my best as both therapist and person.

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Christmas – A Celebration of Grace

The last thing I wanted to think about on the morning of Christmas Eve was death. Yet there I was, driving into the city to run an errand, tears streaming down my face, missing my mom. Resisting the reality that her earthly death had come 3 years before. In recent weeks I’d watched, through social media, the cousin of my nephew spend last days with her father before he passed through this life completely. She’d shared an authentic and vulnerable account of their last moments with him. Although she and I have never physically met, she quickly became one of my teachers on this earth because of her willingness to let her life happen in fullness.   I recalled dialogue with a dear friend just a week ago as she’d told me about her father’s recent end-of-days, hearing in her voice all the strength she’d had to muster just to experience the end of his life with grace and courage. On my heart had weighed the fresh Christmas grief of my own cousins who’d bid farewell to their mother, my aunt, just months earlier. I wanted to feel carefree and content during that drive, to just sing along with the Christmas carols blaring through my speakers.

Instead, grace, mercy, and love wanted to tap me on the shoulder in the form of memories to be cherished, even used to soften this otherwise harsh world.

Yes, sometimes grief is just a not-so-gentle reminder that we’ve given and received grace, mercy, and love in our lives. I decided to let the tears flow, stop resisting, and be mindful of what was placed in my mind on this morning. My emotional strain quickly gave way to warm memories of my mother and how excited she would be around Christmas – mostly because she loved giving to others through the cakes and pies she baked, the joy in the eyes of any children who visited, enamored by all the decorations that donned her home, and the joy in her own eyes when she got to be near her kids and grandkids.  I remembered the many times my mom had offered me her grace, her mercy, and her love.  When I leaned into this rush of feelings welling up inside me, the tears flowed more easily and they were met with gratitude and a smile as I realized I had been given a choice in how to check in with my soul’s deepest movements.  My mom and Christ had a lot in common. They both knew how to move me from a painful place to a much better space.

The cycle of life and death is still a mystery at times. Yet, somehow on Christmas, we choose to accept the most miraculous of lives in Christ’s birth and the most egregious of deaths in His crucifixion. For the Christian faith, it is a celebration. Seems odd, really. We celebrate a day that was so alarming and confusing for a young, virgin girl in the Middle East and then celebrate a day that was, no doubt, full of grief for that same woman as she witnessed the loss of her son on earth years later. The story tells us everything turned out for the best. And what I love about that story is that the main character, Christ, would completely understand my tears on this Christmas Eve morning. Then, He would shift effortlessly with me into celebrating the grace, mercy, and love that my own husband and son give me every day.

Grief requires us to be a vessel for its voice.

Allowing it to be spoken, and felt, washes clean the space through which the best of ourselves can be heard. The grace, mercy, and love others have given me is the best of myself. The story of my Christmas Eve started in sorrow and tears.  Remembering that this holiday is a celebration of grace eased my sorrow, making way for His will to be done.  On Christmas, I get to celebrate the best in me, the Christ in me. Happy Birthday, Christ. Thanks for using Your birthday as my reminder and celebration of grace.

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Christmas – A Celebration of Grace

The last thing I wanted to think about on the morning of Christmas Eve was death. Yet there I was, driving into the city to run an errand, tears streaming down my face, missing my mom. Resisting the reality that her earthly death had come 3 years before. In recent weeks I’d watched, through social media, the cousin of my nephew spend last days with her father before he passed through this life completely. She’d shared an authentic and vulnerable account of their last moments with him. Although she and I have never physically met, she quickly became one of my teachers on this earth because of her willingness to let her life happen in fullness.   I recalled dialogue with a dear friend just a week ago as she’d told me about her father’s recent end-of-days, hearing in her voice all the strength she’d had to muster just to experience the end of his life with grace and courage. On my heart had weighed the fresh Christmas grief of my own cousins who’d bid farewell to their mother, my aunt, just months earlier. I wanted to feel carefree and content during that drive, to just sing along with the Christmas carols blaring through my speakers.

Instead, grace, mercy, and love wanted to tap me on the shoulder in the form of memories to be cherished, even used to soften this otherwise harsh world.

Yes, sometimes grief is just a not-so-gentle reminder that we’ve given and received grace, mercy, and love in our lives. I decided to let the tears flow, stop resisting, and be mindful of what was placed in my mind on this morning. My emotional strain quickly gave way to warm memories of my mother and how excited she would be around Christmas – mostly because she loved giving to others through the cakes and pies she baked, the joy in the eyes of any children who visited, enamored by all the decorations that donned her home, and the joy in her own eyes when she got to be near her kids and grandkids.  I remembered the many times my mom had offered me her grace, her mercy, and her love.  When I leaned into this rush of feelings welling up inside me, the tears flowed more easily and they were met with gratitude and a smile as I realized I had been given a choice in how to check in with my soul’s deepest movements.  My mom and Christ had a lot in common. They both knew how to move me from a painful place to a much better place.

The cycle of life and death is still a mystery at times. Yet, somehow on Christmas, we choose to accept the most miraculous of lives in Christ’s birth and the most egregious of deaths in His crucifixion. For the Christian faith, it is a celebration. Seems odd, really. We celebrate a day that was so alarming and confusing for a young, virgin girl in the Middle East and then celebrate a day that was, no doubt, full of grief for that same woman as she witnessed the loss of her son on earth years later. The story tells us everything turned out for the best. And what I love about that story is that the main character, Christ, would completely understand my tears on this Christmas Eve morning. Then, He would shift effortlessly with me into celebrating the grace, mercy, and love that my own husband and son give me every day.

Grief requires us to be a vessel for its voice.

Allowing it to be spoken, and felt, washes clean the space through which the best of ourselves can be heard. The grace, mercy, and love others have given me is the best of my self. The story of my Christmas Eve started in sorrow and tears.  Remembering that this holiday is a celebration of grace eased my sorrow, making way for His will to be done.  On Christmas, I get to celebrate the best in me, the Christ in me. Happy Birthday, Christ. Thanks for using Your birthday as my reminder of grace.

 

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