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What is trauma and do you have it? An Intro to EMDR

What is trauma and do you have it? An Intro to EMDR

by: Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC, EMDR Therapist

Do you have trauma in your past? Probably. It can be defined simply as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. any event that causes an unusually high level of emotional stress and has a long lasting negative effect on a person. More than the mind or body can bear. If nothing in your personal life story comes to mind when you read those lines, prepare yourself for the day it does, because that day will come. Why can I say this with certainty? Life. Life is filled with brokenness, loss, sorrow, and pain. No one gets a free pass from that.

Sometimes mental health professionals differentiate between “big ’T’ Trauma” and “little ’t’ trauma.” Big “T” Trauma is a sudden, big traumatic experience such as sexual abuse, domestic violence, combat, natural disaster, rape, a life-threatening event, unexpected death of loved one, and crime. But even more common is little “t” trauma, which tends to be a smaller event, is often chronic, or experienced over and over, such as verbal abuse, bullying, loss of a pet or job, divorce, betrayal, etc. Just because the trauma feels smaller does not mean the impact is smaller. A helpful metaphor for the difference might be the difference between having your body set on fire vs being burned all over your body by matches. Both cause painful and lasting damage; it just occurs differently.

EMDR is helpful with a variety of big “T” Traumatic experiences that have caused a person to suffer from PTSD. EMDR can has also been proven to be effective for clinical issues that can be the result of little “t” trauma, such as depression, addiction, anxiety, and self esteem.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an evidence-based treatment for trauma. More than 27 studies (since 1989) have demonstrated EMDR’s effectiveness in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Department of Defense, Department of Veteran Affairs, American Psychiatric Association, and the World Health Organization all recommend this treatment.

For more information about EMDR or to set up an appointment, please contact Courtney Hollingsworth​, LPC, EMDR Therapist at ​courtney@avenuescounselingcenter.org

Finding Pluto: Why knowing our stories is critical to healthy relationships

Finding Pluto: Why knowing our stories is critical to healthy relationships

This all looks really sciency, doesn't it? But look! It has Pluto on it.

This all looks really sciency, doesn’t it? But look! It has Pluto on it.

By Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

Someone asked me the other day, “Why do we need to look back in our lives to explain why we feel bad about things?”  My answer was simple and succinct:

“Pluto.”

The non-planet was only discovered because astronomers were looking for something they couldn’t see.  They had noticed a “wobble” in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus that shouldn’t have been happening if there was nothing else out there.  Math-magicians and astronomers then calculated the mass that would cause these wobbles, and the approximate location in which it would be, and started looking.  They eventually discovered Pluto and its moon, Charon (per this website).  They would likely have never seen Pluto at all if they hadn’t looked for the reason behind that wobble. 

This is a metaphor for our emotional lives.  There are times when we have emotional experiences that seem to be out of proportion to the events at hand.  When something that seems trivial bothers us,  we commonly try to ignore the feeling by telling ourselves “I feel silly.  I’m making a big deal out of nothing.”  We essentially try not to be bothered … and yet we are bothered. 

If you’ve tried this, you can probably verify that this strategy is rather useless.  The bad feeling builds up with repetition until we feel like we have to say something.  By that point, what we say or do is often quite out of proportion to the situation. 

This is usually because what is “visible” – that is, the obvious situation – is most often not all that is in play.  There is more “mass” involved than can be seen.  Getting at that mass will help explain what is happening inside us.

It might have been easier to chalk up that planetary wobble to the visible planets.  The observers could have said, “There is no other explanation.  Neptune is just… crazy.”  It would be annoying every time it was observed, but we would have to shrug our shoulders and walk away.  It sounds foolish when we are talking about astronomy.  It is just as foolish to do this when we are talking about our hearts and minds.

The things that bother us do so for a reason.  When we give our feelings some credit, we have discovered a “wobble”.  By noticing the wobble AND acknowledging that it is there (instead of pretending it isn’t or blaming it on the visible circumstances), we have the opportunity to look around and discover what the other “mass” is that is affecting our experience of what is visible.

Everything makes sense when we know enough story.  What we feel is not always completely reliable, but it makes sense.  Our emotions often don’t match the scenario we are facing, but when they don’t, it’s not because we’re crazy.  It’s because we don’t know enough about ourselves or each other to sufficiently explain it. 

If you have discovered a “wobble” in your current experience, and you would like a little help figuring out what it’s all about come on in and let’s talk about it. –JH

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

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“Can’t is a four-letter word.”  “Can’t never could.” “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Did you grow up hearing any of these phrases (or something similar)?  Encouragements from parents and caregivers to help you face a new challenge that you currently weren’t able to conquer.  An acknowledgement that negative thinking or giving up too easily with “I can’t” will hold you back from growing and learning to do new things. Instilling and maintaining a “can do” attitude is important – to push through the fear of inability and courageously take a risk, believing that you can do something and acting out of that hopeful and determined belief.  If you don’t try, you won’t grow and learn.

But somewhere along the way, after pushing through our fear or inexperience to get beyond “I can’t” when we are young, we can develop a belief that we can (and should) be able to do everything. And be everyone to everyone.  And never disappoint anyone.  We forget that we are human, and with that reality comes certain limitations – limitations of having finite time, emotional capacity, energy, and abilities.

For some of us, “I can’t” still comes too easy and holds us back from trying something new or risking…and if that is you, I encourage you to consider what makes “I can’t” roll off your tongue. Is it protecting you from the risk of failure? Does it feel safer to remain in the comfortable place of what you know?

But for some of us, embracing “I can’t” can be a path towards freedom.  A way to embrace our humanity and draw healthy boundaries around what we were made to be and do. Some versions of “I can’t” change with seasons of life while others remain true our entire lives.  “I can’t be a mom, work full time, be President of the PTA and have a perfectly kept household.” “I can’t have a chronic disease and do everything the way I used to.”  “I can’t be responsible for your emotions.” “I can’t obtain everyone’s approval.” “I can’t be perfect.”

Saying “I can’t” isn’t always about fear or failure, sometimes it’s the healthiest acknowledgement of our humanity that puts us on a path towards freedom.  Where might it be helpful for you to say “I can’t” today?

-Melinda Seley, PLPC

Stress Management in the Mountains

Stress Management in the Mountains

by: Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

One of the hats that I wear in my life is that of a Scoutmaster. I love being with these young men and helping them learn leadership and character. I love hanging out with them and being a part of their world.

stress management

We recently participated in a trek at Philmont Scout Reservation near Cimarron, NM,  a 10-day backpacking journey of 76 miles. Hiking in the mountains of New Mexico, among such sights as are simply not available in Missouri, one might think that stress would melt away and relaxation would be almost a foregone conclusion, especially for one who loves the outdoors.

I found this rest was harder to come by than I thought.  One thing I noted often was our tendency to focus on getting to the next Destination.   We hiked an average of 7 miles a day with 40 pound packs on.  Our stops provided opportunities to participate in program activities like mountain biking, railroading, cowboy action shooting, and tomahawk throwing (to name just a few).   

It is easy when hiking in a group to get caught up in “getting there” in order to have the time to do the activity offered. The tendency is to put your head down and put one foot in front of the other in order to “get there”.  Consequently you will see little more than the rocks, the heels and backpack of the person in front of you.  

I had to remind myself (and the boys) often to slow down, get a little space between ourselves and the next guy, and LOOK AROUND.  “We’re in the MOUNTAINS!  Look at that valley!  Let the massive magnitude of this place sink in, let the sheer sense of scale take hold for just a moment.  Look at this little river snaking through this rich green valley! Listen to the water and the birds! Literally SMELL THE FLOWERS!”

stress managementWhen I did so, we would take a moment, stop or slow down and “ooh and aaah” appreciatively, snap a few photos, and then put our heads down and get back to the “business” of hiking.

When I returned to “civilization”, I noticed a profound similarity between this experience of hiking and to that of driving.  We can become focused on “getting there” rather than on the journey.  We fixate on getting past “this slow idiot” in order to be behind then next slow idiot. We race and race to “get there” rather than allowing ourselves to take our time and to enjoy the journey.  

I think the focus on Destination over Journey is a challenge that faces many of us when it comes to stress and our often futile attempts to manage it.  We need a regular reminder that most of our stress is often self-applied and actually unnecessary.  In the midst of our tasks, if we can slow down and look around, shift our focus from “getting there” or “getting it done” to finding delight in the doing and in the journey, we just might find our lives more livable and enjoyable.  –JEHstress management

Does your past matter?

Does your past really matter?

by:  Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

shutterstock_155509727How often to you pick up a novel or biography you have not previously read, flip to a random page in the middle of the book, and start reading from there? Have you ever tried to sit down in the middle of a movie and pick up the storyline? Our lives are stories full of experiences that connect and impact what comes next. So when we say that the past doesn’t matter or our childhood has no significance when it comes to what’s going on in our lives today, it seems to me more like it’s wishful thinking than what is actually true.

I think there are different reasons why we want to downplay the significance of our past, specifically our early years. Sometimes it seems to stem from a desire to believe we’ve moved past it all, grown too strong and mature for any of those vulnerable years to still have the power to impact us today. For others the motivation to downplay prior experiences comes from an avoidance of the pain which accompanies them.

The reality, however, is that our lives are a whole intricate story.

Think about it this way: what’s the first thing a doctor asks about? Your medical history. What do you want to know about a car before buying it? Accident history and mileage. Similarly, when you are getting know someone new, whether a friend, co-worker, or date, conversation will surely be filled with facts about the present, but part of getting to know them is also understanding their past and where they come from, both literally and figuratively.

Neglecting the importance of our past, especially our early impressionable and very vulnerable years, is a misstep that hinders our growth and depth in the present.

History is a mandatory subject in school for a reason. We can become students of our own histories and discover how and why we got to where we are, potential pitfalls and blindspots we operate with, and relational patterns and styles that may contribute to our present relational struggles.

The Healing Presence of Brutal Reality

The Healing Presence of Brutal Reality

by: Jason Pogue, PLPC

Do you know that uncomfortable tension when you realize you are trying to be somebody or something you are not?

I’m not sure what it feels like for you. For me, it is as if my mind begins to separate itself from my heart, trying to press ahead and leave my knotted stomach and racing heart behind. If I just do these things I can pull it off and no one will know. Often my mind is so good at this that it can be in this place for weeks before I start to recognize my body aching from carrying all the tension – my tight shoulders and aching legs like clues to the mystery of where I actually am. And, no wonder it sometimes takes weeks! Prior to beginning my own counseling journey my mind was in this place for years unaware – racing ahead to avoid the deep fears of being “found out” as an imposter or discovered as someone broken beyond hope. Perhaps my mind was racing ahead at light-speed to avoid the deep pain that I didn’t know how to experience yet, unaware that this pain collects interest over time.

Recently I sat down with some colleagues to discuss an interview with a prolific psychiatrist and author, Irvin Yalom. Irvin recounted early in his career a moment when he sat in the therapy room with “a red-headed, freckled woman, a few years older than” him. In the first session, this woman shared with Irvin that she was a lesbian. Irv writes, “That was not a good start because I didn’t know what a lesbian was. I had never heard the term before.” I about burst out laughing when I first read that. This is the prolific therapist Irv Yalom! Yet even Irv has moments where he must make a choice. Am I going to try to be someone I’m not, or be real in this moment with this person?

Irv, being the gifted therapist he is, made the split-second decision that “the only way [he] could really relate to her was to be honest and to tell her [he] didn’t know what a lesbian was.” And so, he invited her to enlighten him in the coming weeks about her experience and they developed a great relationship in their work together.

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The truth that this little story reveals to me is that what we all need most is genuine and honest connection. If that exists, we can learn from each other and enjoy each other even in our differences, failures, finitude, and confusion. However, this connection is impossible when my mind is racing ahead of my heart – when I’m living in a world designed to protect me from the present, rather than risking being honest about the reality of what is happening right now.

Unfortunately the world we live in continues to tell our minds to run ahead…to forget about the moment because you have a million other things to do, too many things to worry about…or to forget about the moment because what if the moment is unbearable? And yet, it is only when we risk acknowledging the present reality of the now – when we don’t shy away from our fears, inadequacies, wounds, guilt, powerlessness – that we can ever truly enjoy the beauty in and around us and the joys of living in this world.

If you’re tired of trying to be someone you are not, what is stopping you from being who you are? What is stopping you from stopping, and entering into the reality of now?

(The interview with Irvin Yalom can be found at: https://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/irvin-yalom)

Embracing Grief Rather than Running

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC, CCTP

shutterstock_139543490I shared in my previous blog about my journey from fearing grief to embracing it. To embrace grief at any level requires a response from us, and it changes us. 

When we choose to embrace our grief it changes who we are. 

Brene’ Brown expounds on this point when she says, “Grief requires us to reorient ourselves to every part of our physical, emotional, and social worlds”.

Allowing myself to grieve allows my emotions to function as they were meant to.  Acknowledging a sad day or a hard day (even if I have no idea WHY I feel sad or happy) is healthy and good for me. 

When I think about my process of learning to no longer fear grief, I often think about a book I used to read to my boys called, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen.  It is a book about a family out in search of a bear and along the way they run into many obstacles.  Each time they come across an obstacle they say, “We can’t go over it.  We can’t go under it.  Oh no, we’ve got to go through it.” 

This is how I see grief – we can’t get around it no matter how much we would like to, but we must go through it to reach our best chance at emotional healthiness. 

Allowing our grief to exist acknowledges that pain, sadness, and loss are a part of our everyday lives.  Acknowledging these hard and painful emotions normalizes the human condition and experience on this earth.  To live is to have pain.  To live is to have loss.  To live is to hurt.  Therefore we must acknowledge its impact. 

Is Grief Good?

Is Grief Good?

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

shutterstock_174741554To allow yourself to experience grief, and to choose to engage in the on-going act of grieving, is difficult and takes courage. I believe it is something we must actually choose to learn how to incorporate into our lives. According to Brene’ Brown, who has studied emotion and vulnerability for 15 years, we fear the emotion of grief the most. I agree.

As humans, we tend to run from what we fear. So if we fear the emotion of grief, then it makes good sense to say we will likely run from feeling and experiencing it in our lives to the best of our ability.

Why do we fear grief so much? As I asked myself this question, I realized I believed lies about grief and grieving.

Here are some lies I have either believed myself or have heard from others –

~”If I let myself feel sadness or pain, it will only make it worse.”
~”If I let myself acknowledge my grief, I will never be able to function again. It will engulf me.”
~”I don’t have time to be sad.”
~”I need to think positively and not dwell on the bad (on the pain).”
~”The pain from my grief will be so painful, I will not sustain under it.”
~”If I let myself grieve, I am just having a pity party for myself.”
~”Grief only comes when someone dies, and no one has died, therefore I shouldn’t be in pain.”
~”Something is wrong with me because its been “this much time” and I am still sad about ____.”

There are some deep-rooted misbeliefs exposed in the comments above. The assumptions exposed are that grief is bad, weak, wrong, only “okay” when someone dies, and that it exists on some sort of definable timetable.

I started learning a lot about grief and grieving 5 years ago when the landscape of my life radically changed through my divorce. Wrestling with betrayal, and the loss of our intact family, is something I am still grieving. My days are no longer shadowed by grief, but it still pops up from time to time. Some days it may pop up for a moment, some days it may take up residence for a few hours. It has taken me awhile to learn that I will be “okay” in living a life now sprinkled with grief on a daily basis.

I didn’t start out okay with my grief. For the better part of a year after my life had radically changed, I was angry at the pain of my grief. I tried to numb it, run from it, and mask it into something it wasn’t. I fought it, and I suffered for it.

I had to learn how to not fear grief, but rather how to embrace its presence. I had to learn grief is not containable, it cannot be managed, and it lacks predictability. It can last a moment or remain for the better part of a day. It does not ask for my permission to overshadow a day. I also had to learn that when grief rears its head, it doesn’t mean I am weak.

My journey to no longer fear grief is much like my process of no longer fearing thunderstorms. As a kid, I feared thunderstorms (and if i’m being honest here…my fear lasted into my early adult years). It didn’t matter if a storm came in the day or night. To me, the loud bangs of thunder and sudden flashes of light freaked me out! Now as I sit with my youngest son during a storm to calm his fears, I wonder, “What was I so afraid of? It’s just a thunderstorm!” I believed unfounded lies about storms: “something bad is going to happen,” “what if it never stops,” “I am not okay and I won’t be okay until the storm goes away…” and on and on my thoughts would go. Do you see the similarity between storms and grief? With both, I feared what I didn’t understand.

Allowing ourselves to feel grief, is as important as allowing ourselves to feel joy. When we try to numb only the emotions we dislike, feeling we set in motion the beginnings of living an emotionally handicap life. Over time, we will not only numb the emotions we don’t like, but the emotions we like become numb as well.

Accepting Depression

Accepting Depression? “Are you kidding!? Why would anyone want to accept it!?”

slide2Depression can be brutal. You have no energy, no passion. You feel like crap pretty much all the time. It’s the hardest work of the day to find the juice to get out of bed, but you spend so much time in bed, you hate being there. You’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.

But wait there’s more! In addition to having zero energy to do 40% of the necessary things in life (like “eating”, or “bathing”, or “walking”), there’s all the guilt that comes from not having the energy to do them. You feel like you’re dropping the ball, doing life wrong. The voice in the back of your head keeps saying, “You should be able to handle this, but you can’t. If you were a stronger person, you’d be able to get past this more easily. Don’t be such a complainer!” It seems like the very fact that you’re depressed means that you’ve screwed something up.

This is the double-whammy of depression. Not only is the experience awful, but the fact that you’re having it in the first place means you failed somehow.

I have just emerged from a 3-month-long tunnel of depression. One might think that Mental Health Professionals should have their shit together well enough to not get depressed, or at least to know how to handle it when they do. I know I kept coming back to that particular refrain. Therapists make lousy patients I guess, because that philosophy is a load of crap.

The hard work of “handling” depression is learning that there is no such thing as “handling” depression. It exists, it’s real, and it’s not something anyone in their right mind would choose. It happens. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that depression is a state that 10 out of 10 people will experience in their lifetime, whether they would call it “depression” or not. It is something that is utterly common to humans.

Therefore, the internal accusation that “I’m doing it wrong” is utterly false. It is work to grasp this when you’re in the thick of it. It’s hard to believe that being depressed is not wrong because it sucks so much. Being depressed is a normal human experience.

We spend vast resources on not being depressed. What if we could accept that depression is a common thing for humans, and that even when we’re depressed, we’re OK? Don’t get me wrong, depression sucks, and it is perfectly appropriate to hate both depression and being depressed; but don’t hate yourself at the same time.

Of course, circumstantial depression and clinical depression are different animals. I do not suggest that anti-depressants are bad, or that there is no need for them. If your depression lasts longer than a couple of months, it’s time to think about getting medical help. There are real biological causes and effects of depression that Pharmaceuticals can alleviate.

I do believe that we can learn to live with and accept Depression as a common experience. I do believe that especially circumstantial depression can be prolonged and deepened by the self-attack trap that we commonly fall into when we’re depressed. We don’t necessarily need “fixing”. It doesn’t make us feel better, but accepting depression can help us not feel any worse than we already do. And for anyone who is depressed, the freedom to be depressed without the extra guilt or shame might just feel …”better”. – by Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

Life Lessons My Newborn Has Been Teaching Me

Life Lessons My Newborn Has Been Teaching Me

by: Melinda Seley, PLPC

Sometimes life’s greatest teachers come in the smallest of packages. After recently returning from maternity leave, I have been reflecting on some life lessons my newborn has been teaching (or re-teaching) me over the past several months.  Below are the top five:  

Silence the “always” and “nevers” and work to be present here and now.  

Caring for our newborn is one of the most demanding “jobs” I have ever had – it’s physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. In those first weeks with our boy, I found myself so afraid that this would be my new normal – being trapped in the house with a tiny little person who could only communicate via hangry crying and who needed something from me for what seemed like every minute.  I would never get to have friends again, enjoy a cup of hot coffee, attend church, or do anything beyond being at my boy’s beckon call.  This is always how it was going to be.  I found myself saying a lot of “always” and “never’s”.  And the only place they led me was to despair and fear. They made me miss the joy and uniqueness of that finite season and a season I had so longed to experience.  

Do you find yourself saying a lot of always and nevers about where you are in life?  If so, what would it look like to, instead, be present in this moment, right now? To be honest about and grieve the unique challenges, losses, and hardships you are experiencing, but to not forget to look for and savor the good. Right here and now.

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Some of the most significant growth in life comes through hardship or struggle. Don’t avoid it.

Pediatricians recommend that by 2 months of age, infants spend 30-60 minutes on their tummy.  Until he could successfully lift his head, my boy hated “tummy time” and was quite vocal about his dislike of it.  It would turn our happy, easy-going baby into a crying mess.  I wanted to avoid it; I didn’t want to subject my own son to struggle; and honestly, I didn’t want to subject myself to additional emotional exhaustion from needing to soothe him afterwards.  But the only way for him to grow and be able to hold his head steady was for me to allow him to struggle. To give him opportunity each day to face what he didn’t like with support so that he could grow.  Is there anything in your life that seems like it would be easier to avoid but really what you need most is to get down on the mat and spend time learning to lift your head – through the tears and grumbles?  What are you missing out on because it’s easier or more appealing to avoid the struggle?  

Value “being” rather than “doing”.  

I am a “doer”. I like lists and I especially like to check them off. Life with a newborn doesn’t allow for many lists other than feed, change diaper, soothe, repeat (with the occasional change clothes and spray with stain remover mixed in!). In the first days of being home all day alone with my son, I texted my husband, “I’ve showered and done a load of laundry…today is already a success!” And in doing so, I realized that my definition of success was based merely on how much of my “to do” list I could accomplish…instead of savoring just being with my new, precious child who relied on me for everything and who I had longed to have.  Do you struggle as I do to find your identity in what you do rather than just being?  What would it look like to keep the to do list, but give it a whole lot less weight in determining your worth?  You are not what you do. You are not the boxes you check off. You are you and that is enough.

The first time will be the hardest…the important thing is to lean into the fear and do it.  

After 3 weeks with our little guy, I felt like maybe I finally had the hang of this whole parenting a newborn thing. But I still had not left the house with him alone. I was afraid – what if something happens when we’re out and I don’t have what I need or worse yet – I look like I have no idea what I’m doing as a mom?!  My fear kept me stuck in the house and unable to move forward.  And then I read somewhere an encouragement to do something I feared as a new mom each day.  And suddenly I felt a resolve within me that I would not let fear rule me. I had to name the fear and walk through it. After leaving the house for the first time and realizing that I could survive it (and more importantly, our little one could survive it!), it got easier. I had concrete experience to learn from.  What is fear keeping you from doing? What do you need in order to move through that fear and do something for the first time?

Stop comparing.

Being a first time parent is hard. There are so many unknowns, big adjustments, differing opinions on how you should care for your little one, exhaustion, and fear. Every parent is different and every child is different. I found myself looking around me at friends who are on their second, third, fourth child and thinking, “They are handling life so much better and they have more than one child! I can’t even manage {fill in the blank} and I only have one kiddo!” So much shame. And insufficiency. And failure. But my comparing isn’t fair. Those friends of mine have walked through the challenge of adding their first child to their family and they had to do and experience all these things for the first time, too.  And they questioned themselves, felt unsure, and were overwhelmed just as I have been.  And they learned along the way how to do it.  Comparing myself to others in different seasons or places in life discounts their journey to get where they are and the journey I have not yet walked.  And experience is one of life’s greatest teachers. When I stopped looking around to compare and gave myself grace to navigate this completely new role with my unique child and my unique strengths and weaknesses, I found so much more joy in the process. Do you find yourself making endless comparisons?  Are they fair? What would it look like to acknowledge that you have unique strengths and weaknesses and experience is a great teacher?  Would that make a difference in your joy?  

Do you need to learn (or apply) any of these life lessons along with me?  What are you learning where you are on this journey of life?