The Cost of Caring

photo credit: Jonathan Borba on

We are all currently grateful for and in awe of the phenomenal work being done by our healthcare professionals. Some of us have personally benefitted from this work when in dire medical need. Yet, what is the cost paid by those professionals? It could be something called compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue.  What is it and who is most at risk for suffering from it?  The American Institute of Stress defines it as “The emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events”. It might be unusual to think about the Coronavirus pandemic as a trauma.  We often reserve the word trauma for what a warrior goes through in combat, the devastation left by natural disasters, or a person being abused in some way. There are so many people with the illness who don’t even have symptoms.  But for some, the domino effect of this illness can be traumatic and lead to great tragedy. Not only for the person suffering, but also for the ones who bear witness to that suffering. Today, I’m especially reflecting on the ‘front-line’ workers – or as many are calling themselves – the last line of defense. Doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, First-responders – all of the caregivers watching this devastating illness unfold in our emergency rooms.

When I consider the official definition of compassion fatigue, coupled with the stories I’m hearing from healthcare providers about watching people die alone or consider the desperation those providers must feel in efforts to save lives, I can’t help but consider the ultimate burden they must bear.  Many may already be suffering compassion fatigue and currently all are at risk. Mental healthcare providers are familiar with the term as we frequently spend considerable time caring for people who’ve been traumatized. In fact, any caregiver who’s responsible for the care of others experiencing trauma is at risk for this type of “emotional residue”. 

If you’re suffering compassion fatigue what does that look like? It can take on many forms. It causes you to doubt your effectiveness, make you question your purpose and cause you to withdraw from your own loved ones. It can lead to physical exhaustion. If severe, it can weaken a person’s immune system and show up in your body as joint pain, dizziness and even disorientation. If left unaddressed, it can lead to anxiety or severe depression. It’s quite a ‘catch-22’ for professional caregivers. Many of them entered their vocational field and ‘give care’ out of a strong sense of compassion and empathy for others. Yet that very sense of compassion keeping them so dedicated can cause them great mental, emotional, and even physical harm.  So, what can you do to take care of yourself in the face of compassion fatigue?

The first thing is be aware.  Take time to learn what it looks like and feels like in your body, knowing what it sounds like in your thoughts.  Next, be honest with yourself.  Caregivers sometimes struggle to admit they have limitations.  Their strong sense of devotion makes it hard to think about self-care. Yet, self-care is not just a trendy term we see floating on social media. It’s necessary we all learn to care for our ‘self’. It’s important to take action on that awareness so that the caregiver can continue to honor their dedication to others.

“….self-care is not just a trendy term we see floating on social media.”

Here are 4 things you’ll want to do if you’re in a position that places you at risk for compassion fatigue:

Check in with your body daily.  Does it need rest, water or nutrition?  Perhaps you need exercise to release tension and build stamina?  Even small amounts of exercise or movement daily can yield significant and positive changes both physically and emotionally.

Take a mental break from high expectations.  You likely place those expectations on yourself in the role of care provider in order to do your best for others.  It’s important, however, to remember that everyone has limitations.  It’s just a part of being human. 

Intentionally create a balanced life.  Engage in healthy activities that are solely for your own benefit or enjoyment.  Perhaps start a hobby or connect with others for the purpose of having fun and relaxing. Even learning how to just be, without doing anything at all can yield much needed mental and physical results.

Talk to a trusted person about how you’re feeling.  It’s important to process those self-doubts. Plus, talking with someone can help you stay connected. Spending much of our time caring for others can tend to leave us feeling isolated from others. We might begin to tell ourselves they couldn’t possibly understand what we’re going through. Whether it’s a friend, family member, or therapist, it’s important to tell your story in a trusted space.  Talking through your thoughts and emotions prevents them from bottling up inside which can add to the most harmful consequences of compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is real and anyone suffering its consequences deserves to feel better. While it is the result of doing valuable and noble work, it can result in painful symptoms. Fortunately there are both preventive steps that can be taken and healing can occur in its aftermath. I’m grateful for our healthcare providers and admire anyone who takes on the role of caregiver, hoping they add themselves to the list of people they care about.

Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Open Your Parachute: The Importance of Giving Your Body’s Natural Alarm System a Break!

Driving down a busy highway. Having to meet an unexpected deadline at work. Caring for a chronically ill family member. These scenarios and many more can keep our body’s natural “alarm” system on alert. This process in our body is officially titled our stress response system and is designed to keep us safe in emergencies. When the body’s alarm (officially called our sympathetic nervous system), begins to scream at us, there is a chemical reaction that ensues. This reaction sends a series of stress hormones throughout our body, giving us what our alarm believes is the energy we need to “fight off the tiger” it perceives will eat us. Unfortunately, our body’s alarm doesn’t know the difference between an actual threat from something like a tiger and a deadline at work. Most of us have heard of the “fight or flight” (and freeze) process that is created when we are facing enormous or traumatic stress. When our body’s well-designed system sends these chemicals soaring throughout our bloodstream at lightning speed, our thinking brain can even shut down for a brief period of time -rendering us unable to think clearly or calm ourselves. If you’ve ever experienced this “fight or flight” phenomena, you know that it can feel like someone has literally raked you over coals or beaten you up from the inside out. Our muscles tense, our heart rate speeds up and we can experience nausea, lightheadedness, and other extremely distressing bodily and mental sensations. The long-term effects of having this natural alarm screaming can take it’s toll on our overall health. That’s why it’s important to be introduced to another vital part of our body’s protective devices – it’s called the parasympathetic nervous system. These two systems work in tandem – meaning when one is activated, the other is not. They are both necessary and finding balance for ourselves is the best way to ensure maximum physical and psychological health.

Think of the parasympathetic nervous system as the parachute inside us that serves to slow down that stress response and cancel the alarm. In this way, functions such as our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing can return to a resting and relaxed state. But, here’s the kicker – the stress response system gets all sorts of practice. Our body’s resting device, or parasympathetic nervous system, needs to be exercised with intent so that it’s ready to take over and do the necessary job of helping us rest. This rest is so necessary for our long-term health that professionals in the health industries have made sure we have access to the resources we need to keep our body’s systems in tip-top shape. Listed in this post are several great resources that can help you make sure you are taking the best care of you! Rest and relaxation are not just luxuries. In fact, the more you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the more you conserve energy for when your alarm goes off and you really need it! Rest and relaxation is as vital to our survival as air is to our breath! Many people have benefitted from being intentional in activating their parachute as often as possible. If you’ve not discovered the benefits of your body’s parachute system, try some of the resources below.

Apps for activating your parachutewhile the first two have subscription options for more choices, they all offer free versions of great ways to give your body the slow-down that it needs. Just go to the “Apps” section of your mobile device or iPad and pull the ring on your parachute!

1. Calm

2. Breethe

3. Breathe2Relax

Websites – 2 of the Apps listed above have great desktop versions for you to take advantage of –

One of my favorite ways to pull the ring on my ‘chute is to practice what we sometimes call soft-belly breathing (take a moment and google that one!) while watching and listening to a powerful video with instrumental music. “Weightless” was created by a group called Marconi Union, who worked with sound therapists to create a perfect way to bring our body’s state of relaxation in to alignment. Just google “Weightless Marconi Union” and you can find a short (8 minute) version, 2 hour version or extended 10 hour version for those restless nights!

Research suggests that walking through a green forest or out in nature activates our body’s rest and relaxation function. Other ways to activate the parachute include yoga and mindfulness or meditation exercises. Many communities have wonderful yoga instructors and if you’re not sure about mindfulness exercises or meditation, most mental health providers can coach you on these practices. Some of us even specialize in helping others combat stress and find much needed balance. If you’ve never considered being intentional about bringing balance to your health, try adding just one of these practices to your day and create valuable quality to your health and life!

Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255

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What Are We Thanking Them For? Perspective from a Veteran’s Therapist

In the week leading up to this year’s Veteran’s Day I’ve heard “thank you for your service” spoken to an array of veterans (and active duty service members) for about a week now.  First, it was a young girl who saw an airman standing in line at the convenience store one morning on his way to drill weekend.  Then, it was to the elderly gentleman at the grocery store wearing his Vietnam Vet baseball cap and buying his milk, spoken by the young man bagging his groceries who shared that his grandfather had also served.  So it goes here and there, online and in the community.  Thank you for your service.  At the same time, as more and more veterans and active duty service members are finding their way into my office for therapy, I discover myself being a bit curious about all this gratitude.  Do we really know what we’re thanking them for when we say it?  So many of us imagine that we’re thanking them for putting their lives on the line, leaving their families for months on end, and marching through combat zones hoping to return in one piece.  After all, except for loss of life, that’s the ultimate sacrifice they make.  Many veterans have done just that.  Still other warriors never returned to hear the words “thank you”.  For their sacrifice, we say it to grieving spouses and mothers, to small children who’ll have to hold tight to a few years of memories.

I mostly say things like “I’m glad you’re here” and “It’s going to be difficult work some days, but we’ll do this together” and of course, the ever-dreaded “How does that make you feel?”

Yet, being a therapist who’s offered counseling both on military installations and in the civilian sector, the stories of sacrifice unfold in ways most grateful citizens can’t imagine.  So this year, I thought I’d reflect on what veterans teach me every day about sacrifice.  This way, when I say thank you for your service, I can be as genuine and knowing as possible.  While I risk sounding a bit cynical or morbid, it is actually my hope to shed, more fully, a light on the sacrifices made for the sake of your and my freedom.  I hope readers can forgive any dark shade my reflections pour on the patriotism and honesty we all feel when we extend our words of gratefulness to veterans.  Bear with me as I offer a glimpse in to some of the sacrifices veterans have made for our nation, as seen by a therapist who hears the rest of the story on a weekly basis.

Veterans from the Vietnam War era came home more frequently to hatred rather than gratitude.  I stood on the sidewalk at Ft. Bragg 7 years ago and watched a Colonel break down in tears as he told me the story of standing at a bus stop in the nation’s capitol while people spit and threw their drinks on him – because of his service.  He was serving in the post 9/11 era and still faced the perils of activists with misguided actions.  For those who served in Vietnam, it was even worse.  So when I thank a veteran, I’m thanking them for enduring the egregious offerings of a sometimes, ungrateful nation.  And I think of that Colonel who sacrificed his own nobility to cry on that sidewalk so he could share his story.

Meeting their spouse’s new partner on the tarmac when they get off the plane amidst “welcome home” signs, ticker tape and fanfare.  Let’s be clear.  I’ve seen this happen.  Marriage in the military is difficult.  If a service member’s marriage is young or strained before they begin a constant stream of deployment to combat, long-term training, or schools for advancement, getting the help they need from marriage counseling becomes nearly impossible.  Many couples begin the process of marital healing only to have “orders” interrupt their efforts.  He (or she) now has to leave for weeks of training and the counseling is upended.  I’ve watched service members return to houses emptied of all the furniture and a note left ending the marriage and family unit forever.  I’ve sat with a soldier awaiting to board a plane for the middle east just after his spouse dropped him off for that flight and announced she couldn’t suffer another deployment worrying about his fate – so she was filing for divorce. For the spouses who make the decisions to leave, there’s no blame from the therapist’s chair.  I’ve watched spouses try hard to manage their own depression or anxiety, be single parents for 15-months at a time, and collapse under the strain of wondering, with every breath, if their spouse will return intact, or even at all.  That kind of anxiety can’t be easy to bear.  Marriage is sometimes the casualty of war.

Many veterans discover that once honorably discharged with at least a middle-management level of training and experience, they have to start at the bottom of the vocational barrel or educational pursuit.  Getting a college degree is difficult for a service member because of moving, training schedules, combat deployment, and long days on the regular calendar of reporting for duty.  If an enlisted soldier doesn’t have a degree when they join, education is an automatic back-burner event.  Even in the days of online education, the logistics of serving and going to school puts a heavy strain on military members.  Those online degrees come at an exorbitant cost.  If they do go straight to the civilian sector for work, the civilian employers often don’t know how to translate military rankings and experience into the equivalence of job expertise.  This leaves many veterans underemployed and underutilized.  If they were leaders of men and women in the army, they end up with no one to lead at the bottom of an employment ladder.  This takes a psychological toll, leaving many of them feeling lost and out-of-place.  Going from being the leader of a “band of brothers” to isolated and the rookie of an unfamiliar band is hard.  Many of them see no other choice, so they humbly start where they must to bring home a paycheck.  Ask any mighty marine or soldier what it’s like to feel helpless.  When I ask them this question in the therapy space, the spew of curse words that sometimes fly……well.  Let’s just say it’s difficult to feel that helpless and isolated when you’ve been trained survive war along side men and women you’d die for.

They’d give anything to feel whole again.

Military kids sometimes have to change schools an average of 6-9 times between kindergarten and graduating high school during their military parents’ careers.  Making friends as a kid can be tough.  Even I felt tentative and unsure about whether those peer connections were real and I went to school in the same small town for the entirety of my youth.  Can you imagine having to wonder about a new set of peers every three years?  No, thanks.  Yet, shout-out to all the military kids I know who are the ultimate troopers – resilient, strong, and articulate.  Not to mention that many of our military kids whose parents serve in the National Guard or reserve units attend primarily civilian schools not near large military bases.  For them, when the stresses of military life are bearing down, their teachers might not have the training and insight to understand that little Johnny is suddenly dropping his grades or acting out because of separation from his parent or fear that parent will die.  Unfortunately, some combat veterans come back from war believing they are less than when they entered war, and their medical issues or loss of limb are stark reminders that they give more than most of us could ever dream of giving.  For any person, that moment – the moment of feeling less than – becomes a sacrifice too heavy to bear.  They’d give anything to feel whole again.  Until that day, if it comes, their kids live with an oddly present, yet absent parent.  The sacrifice of meaningful attachment becomes the never-ending sacrifice for some military families. 

This small list doesn’t begin to describe the lifetime of sacrifice in store if the veteran suffers moral injury, post-traumatic stress, TBIs, or the multitude of service-related medical issues that can arise.  I could go on about the scores of chaplains and commanders who’ve witnessed sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers breathe a last breath.  Or the battle buddies who will spend the holiday choking back tears shed for the fallen comrade.  And then there’s the marine who thought he was going to spend Veteran’s Day reuniting with his entire team, only to learn that one died at the hands of suicide just last week. 

In case you haven’t heard – warriors are trained to deny their feelings and that’s the first thing I’m going after in the therapy space. The ultimate clash of the titans.

Even as I consider the scores of sacrifice by veterans while they served, I can hear the voice of several veterans I know who would read this post and say, “Dang, Chris, you make it sound like we want sympathy!  We don’t. We just want to live our lives, provide for our families, and be okay again”.  Being the therapist to veterans and active duty service members is a highlight in my career and includes many honest, and often blunt, exchanges between me and my veteran clients. Veterans who become therapy clients are the best kind – direct, aware, and painfully honest. You might be surprised that I rarely say “thank you for your service” to them when they become my clients.  I mostly say things like “I’m glad you’re here” and “It’s going to be difficult work some days, but we’ll do this together” and of course, the ever-dreaded “How does that make you feel?”  In case you haven’t heard – warriors are trained to deny their feelings and that’s the first thing I’m going after in the therapy space. The ultimate clash of the titans. I’m grateful and humbled by their courage to let two worlds collide – their warrior world and their emotional world. When I do (out of habit) say “thank you for your service, I appreciate you”, they grin and muster a humble “you’re welcome, ma’am”.  I solicit an agreement that they won’t continue calling me “ma’am” (they do anyway), and we continue the work of their healing together.  Sometimes our therapy work ends with a handshake, and on occasion, they ask if they can have a hug.  In irony, the gratitude they feel compelled to express for a safe space to heal makes my ‘thank you for your service’ seem so insufficient.  But, I’ll continue to find ways to express my sincere gratitude and be forever mindful of the real sacrifices they’ve made.

Any similarities a reader might find between their own story and the elements of this writing are purely coincidental. All efforts are made to change identifying details (rank, time period, campaign served, gender, etc.) to protect the identity of any person mentioned. The essence of the story, however, remains authentic in honor of the men and women who have humbled me with their disclosures.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 1-800-273-8255

Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.

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PTSD: A “Not-So-Invisible” Wound

photo by Jhonis Marins from

June is PTSD Awareness Month. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is the official name of an injury listed in the DSM V (the most current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Clinically, it’s considered a specific form of anxiety. Yet, in recent years it has been referred to as an invisible wound because of it being not readily visible by others who may be interacting with the person challenged by the symptoms. We now know it’s not just a psychological wound, but also an injury that’s been imposed on a person’s nervous system. Because of its covert existence, PTSD sometimes goes undetected for periods of time or can even be mistaken for other mental health illnesses because of its shared symptoms with those diagnoses. Though for those individuals whose lives are turned upside down by PTSD, it might be considered the “not-so-invisible” wound. The personality changes they undergo and the way their bodies respond to the impact are life-altering, sometimes creating distress that seems impossible to bear.

In order to erase the stigma behind what is officially a mental health illness, some in the healthcare profession have dropped the “disorder” and just say PTS. While a person’s life can be dis-ordered by the impact of trauma and they might actually feel physically ill by its presence, addressing PTS as the injury it is can lead to more accurate understanding and care. Excellent care for those wounded in this way is the most important reason to gain as much comprehension as possible. In our communities, that understanding can lead to the development of necessary resources for those that suffer from PTS.

“…..for those persons whose lives are turned upside down by post-traumatic stress, PTSD might be considered the “not-so-invisible” wound”.

Regardless it’s call-name, post-traumatic stress can be as debilitating as any physical injury suffered by someone. The impact can be life-changing, whether managed swiftly or lingering for years. If there are multiple traumatic event(s) or the trauma experienced is prolonged in nature, a healthcare provider may refer to the stress response as complex post-traumatic stress. Either diagnosis is accompanied by a litany of distressing changes in how the person copes with his/her life. Some of those changes might be physical in nature, such as severe sleep deprivation and even headaches or nausea when recalling the traumatic event. PTS can cause major changes in what we believe about ourselves and the world around us. One of the most uncomfortable changes is how our nervous system responds to being startled or while having even just having thoughts about the traumatic event(s). This is called hyper-arousal and happens when a person is triggered by something in their environment that has even the slightest resemblance to the original trauma. When a person’s life is stricken by these stresses, he/she is likely to do whatever possible to avoid reminders of the trauma. This avoidance may cause that person to change how they exist in the world by removing themselves from otherwise healthy socialization (isolation). The internal disruption caused by the PTS wound can leave someone feeling stuck on an emotional roller-coaster without escape. Called emotional dysregulation, this upheaval in their emotions is not only stressful for them, but can be equally overwhelming for anyone in proximity to the person suffering.

The internal disruption caused by the PTS wound can leave someone feeling stuck on an emotional roller-coaster without escape“.

In the United States, and in part as a result of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, PTS has received a much-needed increase in the attention it receives. Mental healthcare providers, desperate to encourage service members toward asking for help, have done remarkable work in advocating for treatment of PTS. Though anyone, regardless of the nature of trauma (rape, childhood abuse, near-death accidents or illness), could meet the criteria for PTS. Even being in long-term relationships with emotionally unsafe people is known to produce symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Thankfully, there are treatments that are effective in treating the injury. While medications may be prescribed as part of a treatment plan, there are multiple treatments available that do not require medication.

If you believe you or someone you care about is suffering from a PTS injury after being exposed to trauma, please consider reaching out to a healthcare professional in your community. There are people who know this wound is “not-so-invisible” to you and are able to offer relief from its debilitating effects.

To learn more about PTSD, please join me as I partner with to educate about all mental health issues and available treatments. Click below:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline – 1-800-273-8255

Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.

Posted in Counseling, Counseling and Mental Health, Psychology, Psychotherapy, War | Leave a comment

The Life of Grief

photo courtesy of

It’s Memorial Day weekend.  There will be many people who are remembering comrades, spouses, siblings, and parents lost in service to their country.  At least half-dozen precious faces of soldiers pass through my mind as I recall my own experience with this mark on the calendar.  Throughout a particularly tough 4 years during OEF (the war in Afghanistan), I attended a lion’s share of memorial services to honor fallen soldiers.  To this day, hearing a single trumpet playing TAPS, the chilling “roll call” tradition, or hearing the honor guard team sound off with their rifles causes my mind and body to pay attention.  I once heard a civilian pastor, during a Memorial Day sermon, suggest that “memorializing” an event or a person gave that event or person too much importance and that we should stay away from memorializing anything earthly.  He suggested that if we give our painful memories that power it would mean we were giving a backseat to our faith in God.  My seat on the pew squeaked as I squirmed in discomfort at the idea that any tears shed on Memorial Day might be a sin.  To the contrary, I believe there is positive power in sitting with the acknowledgments and memories that come with the day.  Remembering the love we’ve felt for the lost is good.  Finding that good, especially in the face of egregious and painful loss, may actually be a sign of faith.  Intentionally spending time with those memories and that loss, to me, is a sign of healthy reflection and strength.  Sadly, after I heard that sermon, I questioned the upheaval of my own emotions as this weekend rolled around.  It gave me cause to reflect on what I’ve learned about grief.  We can only truly learn a thing intimately if we’re willing to spend time with it.  I’ve had many people trust the therapy space in my office while they became familiar with their grief.  Here are a few those things I’ve learned about grief from watching so many people pass through its tunnel.

It might be helpful to think of grief as a signal that our life is changing in momentous ways.  Grief is a normal process, in part designed for helping us acknowledge and understand those changes by nudging us to pay close attention and even honor the precious people and moments that have shaped our lives. 

  • Grief allows a pace that matches each grieving person’s needs.  Not everyone grieves the same.  For some, grief comes loud and swift, cloaking the grieving in a shroud of despair while they drown in seemingly unending tears.  Others detach, and if you didn’t know about their loss you would be hard-pressed to see evidence that grief is there.  For them, the grief waits or moves at such a slow and quiet pace that it’s hardly detectable.  For the former, the shroud eventually lifts and darkness is replaced with the light of new normal that slips in subtly, as if not wanting to topple the cart.  For the latter, grief may decide it can no longer wait for the much-needed attention it requires, growing into an overwhelming presence that seems so random and ill-timed it confuses even the person who has the right to grieve.
  • Grief demands its due time and attention.  Grief is a strong and powerful emotional experience for anyone.  While all persons grieve differently, there is one constant with grief.  It demands its voice be heard.  Grief must be acknowledged, processed, and expressed in some form.  If a person tries to minimize grief, it will show itself in a variety of distressing ways.  From physical illness to severe mental health conditions, grief can morph and take over until it is properly notice for what it is – the pain of loss. 
  • Grief has no expiration date.  Many of us are familiar with the “5 stages of grief” – denial, anger, bargaining, anger, and acceptance.  The stages, penned by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross were used to describe the progression of emotions experienced by terminally ill patients before their own death.  The original way the stages were presented made it seem like a journey that had a distinct beginning, middle, and end.   While grief is a journey,  it is not one marked by the distinction of a finish line (acceptance).  In grief’s way, it ends up camping out with a person for eternity.  It’s really more of an adjustment – albeit a painful one.  It’s a threshold over which a person steps as they walk into a new life without the person they’ve lost.
  • Grief can help you grow.  Learning your own grief intimately – how it feels, what it sounds like in your mind, how your body carries it – can lead to increased self-awareness.  Grief causes us to ask important questions about our lives, about our faith, what we believe about our mortality.  It can take us on a search for our most significant why and lead us back to a mindfulness that makes each day count.  Grief is not the enemy.  If allowed, it can serve as a guide through darker times when aloneness is so heavy we can’t breathe.  When we feel we’ve lost our way wrongly believing that, without our lost loved one, we can never be found again, grief can guide us home. 
  • Grief requires nothing more than to be spoken and witnessed by respectful presence.  Grief doesn’t require that the blanks be filled in with explanation or reasoning for loss. While we are tempted to try and make sense of loss, especially if sudden (as is the case when a loved one dies in war or an accident), grief is not concerned with those details. If not blocked by avoidance, grief knows how to navigate its way through the ups and downs of our daily life with little urging on our part.  In support of any person who is suffering loss, grief requires only that we be respectful of the unique way it shows up in the grieving person and that we offer quiet, reassuring presence. 

Grief……..can take us on a search for our most significant why and lead us back to a mindfulness that makes each day count. 

Loss of a loved one through death is not the only loss that creates grief.  Important loss of any kind can prompt grief to flow.  However, losing someone you love to death may be the most painful grief of all. It might be helpful to think of grief as a signal that our life is changing in momentous ways.  Grief is a normal process, in part designed for helping us acknowledge and understand those changes by nudging us to pay close attention and even honor the precious people and moments that have shaped our lives.  Rather than avoid or minimize grief when it comes, we can learn to embrace it as a rite of passage – a passageway that is filled with evidence that we’ve cared for someone deeply and that our life has had, and will continue to have, significant meaning.

Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255

Posted in Counseling, Grief, Psychotherapy, Resilience, War | Leave a comment

Lifting the Burden of Shame


Photo by Kat Jayne from Pexels

“I made a mistake” vs. “I am a mistake”.  There’s a powerful distinction between those two statements.  The first is fueled by healthy guilt which can help us keep tabs on our own behavior and motivate us to being our best self.   The latter is a dangerous self-directed message that, if left unaddressed, can lead to disabling patterns of function, not to mention having the potential to lead us down a path of self-destruction.  Guilt is typically created by a person’s behaviors.  It is the internal gauge by which we monitor our own intentions.  Unfortunately, shame isn’t necessarily connected to a person making mistakes, or connected to any of their behaviors for that matter.  Shame can be imposed on us by others as they project a litany of their own internal struggles onto us.  At times, it shows up as a symptom of the mental illnesses we call clinical depression or anxiety.  It can seep into one’s thought-life and attach itself to a person’s belief about their worth, leaving them in a state of self-loathing.

Shame is heavy and traps a person in despair. 

So what’s the difference in how guilt and shame feel?  Healthy guilt usually leads to sincere apologies, authentic changes, and improved behaviors.  While guilt can weigh on us until we make said changes, it is typically relieved once we take positive steps forward.  Shame is more burdensome.  Shame is heavy and traps a person in despair.  Even if suicidal thoughts never come, the person feels hopeless that life can get better.  The heaviness of it might have us believing that healing isn’t that simple.  However, it is simple.  It’s just that simple doesn’t always mean easy and the path to healing from shame is rarely travelled well alone.

Fortunately, there is hope and people can heal from shame.  In recent years, studies on shame have proven it to be an unfortunate prevalence for many.  This has led to a movement among mental healthcare professionals to find best practices in helping a person recover from it.  So, what does that healing look like?  In a nutshell, the remedy is self-compassion.  Whether our shame is self-inflicted or dealt on us by someone else’s brokenness, time spent with a skilled therapist can help us flush the damaging self-talk that has permeated our thought-life.  If the shame was created by guilt that was allowed to settle in rather than be used for positive change, we may have to learn the practice of self-forgiveness.

Self-forgiveness requires that we be vulnerable, accepting our imperfect nature, allowing for improvement.  If we can accept that we’re doing the best we can until we know better, it allows for our mistakes while encouraging our growth.  It’s normal to feel regret for our mistakes, yet regret from past choices can either be repurposed into life-changing lessons or allowed to remain as lingering mental anguish.  If we grab hold of the lessons, the changes we make become a natural part of our response to life.  This new way of responding brings mental and emotional relief as we are freed from the ruins of shame.  Otherwise, we join the vicious cycle of those who desperately turn a blind eye to the introspection needed to heal and choose instead to pour their shame-turned-rage onto others.

Another major step in growth that leads to healing from shame is self-compassion.  While this has become a buzzword in the world of self-help, it is not meant as a politically correct way of endorsing self-indulgence.  Believing such can cause people to shy away from the idea of having compassion towards oneself.  Yet, without this emotionally intelligent practice, we are incomplete.  Compassion for oneself happens when we shift our focus from the past to our present and future.  It is propelled by our courage to look inward with an honest and self-caring lens.  Whether we learn how to avoid absorbing the shaming messages administered by others or recover from the self-inflicted kind, healing is possible and life-altering.

Shame has its own kryptonite – disclosure and connection.  Finding a trusted person with whom we can talk openly about how our shame feels and how it sounds in our mind is the most powerful tool in fighting against it.  Whether that’s a friend, a chaplain, or a psychotherapist, disclosing our shame can shrink it.  The connection we find in allowing someone to sit with us while we work through shame’s devastating effects can reduce the isolation it causes and lets us see we’re not alone in our struggle.  Regardless the origin, shame has a crippling effect on one’s life.  If you suspect you are weighed down under a burden of shame, be encouraged to seek relief.

Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255

To learn more on how we can stamp out the stigma surrounding mental health, join me as I partner with #ImPsychEd at:

Posted in Counseling, Counseling and Mental Health, Psychotherapy, Self-Acceptance | Leave a comment

The Healing Agent of Talking

Female psychologist consulting male patient, job interview, business meeting

As some people consider seeking a psychotherapist or counselor (often used interchangeably), they may question how “just talking” to a professional might be helpful. Many of my clients have told me that they believed talking with someone who was not closely connected to their personal situation, and who could remain non-biased, was what led them to make the call. Others are drawn to therapy because of the confidentiality it offers. But what makes “just talking” helpful? If you’re considering therapy, though are unsure it would be any more helpful than venting to a friend, consider the following:

  1. A therapist is trained to listen. What is it about listening that would require a person be trained? Therapists are educated to manage their own biases in order to focus on the client’s needs. In fact, it is highly recommended that even seasoned therapists seek consultation from peers in the field so they can ensure they are listening and considering the client’s needs with complete objectivity.
  2. Therapists aren’t “just listening”. While a safe space to vent may feel great to the client, the therapist is doing more than just listening until the client has emptied themselves from distressing thoughts and emotions. A therapist can listen for any long-standing patterns of thinking that may be getting in the way of you living the life you want to live.
  3. Therapists aren’t afraid to lose your friendship. That’s because your relationship with a therapist isn’t a friendship. It is professional. The boundaries set in place for you by this professional connection protect you and allow the therapist to be honest with you about what they observe. Because of the safety in this well-structured relationship, the therapist can help you confront difficult aspects of your life and self in ways that foster healing and growth. Since it isn’t a friendship, there is no assumption that you are responsible for how your therapist feels. Having an entire hour in your life where the only person you are responsible for is you can be a powerful way to change.
  4. Therapists know the thought-feeling connection. Many therapists, especially those who practice cognitive therapies, understand how to help you change unwanted feelings by challenging thought patterns that may be keeping you stuck in an unwanted emotional place.
  5. Therapists understand how the mind and body work together. Some therapists are well-versed in somatic-based treatment. This means they can empower you by teaching you to better manage some aspects of your nervous system. By doing so, you can experience positive results in managing anxiety, the effects of traumatic events on your life, and a depressed mood. Although some of our body’s neurological and physiological responses may also require treatment by a medical doctor who can prescribe medications, having the support of a well-trained therapist can enhance your healing.

Therapists typically aren’t finished with their training after graduate school. Throughout their careers, they are required to continue that education annually and some even begin to carve out specialty skills. This professional development doesn’t preclude them from sincerely caring about your well-being. Many therapists enter the field because they believe they are called to care for others while using specific gifts in helping people transform their lives. In fact, many therapists are well-trained in not only the science of psychotherapy, but also the art of it.  So while you are doing all this talking in their office, it can feel as comfortable and authentic as if you were just sitting down with that trusted friend. The exception is that you have the undivided attention of a trained professional who is focused on only you.

If you wonder if working with a therapist or counselor might be a good fit for you, I recommend you research those in your area. You have every right to make sure the one you choose is skilled in the area of your need and is trained to give you the best possible care. The healing agent of talking might be what you need.

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