Mood

Stopping the Runaway Train – Part II: The Importance of Naming Our Experience

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

This is the third blog in a series. So far, we’ve explored the very real experience of relational chaos and trying circumstances and looked at our ability to choose how we want to be in response to them, and we’ve discussed how the first step to stopping the runaway train is slowing down through relaxation exercises like the breathing one we tried together. Today we will explore the importance of naming our experience.

[Remember, this all takes time, patience, and practice. So, though our blog series chugs along, stopping the runaway train usually takes some serious time and discipline and perhaps help from a friend, mentor, or therapist. If you want to take the next step in this regard, feel free to email or call and setup an appointment.]

“You can’t just change plans last minute! I have studies, and work, and a life to plan of my own!” I shouted over the phone. My brother’s wife wisely jumped in, “This is getting unsafe – we need to have this conversation when we aren’t driving through this crazy weather.” She was right, and I was out of control. And, I wish I could say I realized it in that moment and stopped the runaway train of my anger – but I didn’t. I did hang up, but I was still furious.

My brother and his wife were taking a cross-country road trip for their honeymoon. Based on a number of legitimate reasons including weather, they had to change the days in which they were arriving to visit me in St. Louis where I was working my way through my graduate studies. When my brother delivered the message, I was in the midst of a hectic life – running from work, to class, to work, to making dinner, to studying through the night, and so on. I was moving so fast, that I didn’t skip a beat when my anger overtook me – I just let it fly without a moment’s delay.

Now, after the fact, I can look back and realize that anger wasn’t primarily about what was going on. I was feeling overwhelmed with life, and feeling like my schedule and anxieties were invisible to my brother and his wife.

This experience hit on threads in my story of times when I felt like my experience took the back seat to others, and I was so tired of that feeling of being trampled or not worth people noticing my needs.

All of this was actually pretty removed from anything my brother or his wife did, but I was moving so fast that in the moment I had no capacity to understand this because I had no ability to name my own experience.

We live in a culture that values ‘busy-ness’ – where being on the go is often a status symbol of our success.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy ambition in your career or life, and yet sometimes we are moving so fast we entirely lose touch with ourselves – with what is actually going on inside our minds and hearts. We enter autopilot.

Autopilot isn’t always bad either, but when it comes to relationships it becomes a barrier to knowing others and being known. It’s like trying to be in relationship with a robot. So, after we’ve incorporated various relaxation exercises into our life to help manage our big emotions like deep breathing or mindfulness, another crucial step is putting words to what is going on in our internal world without judgment.

The last part can trip many up because we want to justify ourselves. Maybe a small piece of us wonders if it’s okay what we’re feeling? Perhaps we shame ourselves that we should never feel such things, or we blame others for what we are experiencing internally. Much of this comes out of what we’ve learned about emotions from both our families of origin and our experiences along the way. These areas are another step of exploration, but for now we must simply name our experience.

Just as a doctor cannot move forward with treatment without fully understanding all of the symptoms, so we cannot move through our internal emotional experience without fully understanding it from a distance – without judgment. What is there, is there. To jump to judgment before fully understanding it would be to like the doctor treating you without asking any questions about symptoms – yikes! To avoid naming it, is to brush it under the rug and give what control we have over how we want to be back to the runaway train. This is why naming our experience, and the accompanying emotions, is so vital to not being ruled by them.

 

Kids, Feelings, and Parents, Oh My!

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

Inspired by How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk, by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Parenting is exhausting.  Taking part in relationships with adults who struggle to communicate their emotions is hard enough, but engaging with kids who don’t know what they are feeling or how to tell you their feelings is even harder!  Being in tune with our children’s emotions and experiences allows us to more naturally engage in our relationship with them.

Just because kids are “young, little, a baby” does not mean their emotional experiences are less real or matter less than our own experiences.

The author of How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk describes her experience of parenting and how she “could be accepting about most of the feelings [her] children had, but let one of them tell me something that made me angry or anxious and I’d instantly revert to my old way [of parenting]” (page 3).  Her old ways were when she would disregard, minimize, invalidate, avoid, or ignore another person’s experience.

How do we feel when someone disregards our feelings?  How do we feel when people pretend they didn’t hear what we said? Or, when people try to “help” or “fix” a situation when all we want is someone to listen.

When we feel listened to and understood it is easier for us to manage our emotional responses.  The same happens with our children.

When they feel listened to and understood, they are able to work through their emotional experiences and problem solve more clearly.   Often, children are just wanting someone to intently listen to them.  Our attunement to the conversation and small responses, like “uh-huh” allow our children to know we are paying attention.  This response only works if you are looking at them, not at a screen!

Children need help naming their emotions and giving words to their experience.

The naming of emotions acknowledges their experience and helps to increase their engagement in the relationship. It also helps to teach children about emotions.  It can be helpful to have an emotions chart on the refrigerator with faces on it, or for older kids a wheel of emotions.

Being in relationship with our kids is hard work. This hard work is laying the framework for better relationships as they age. We hope they have learned about their emotions and how to verbalize them and deal with them safely.   We are teaching something important to our children that they don’t yet know is important!

Stopping the Runaway Train – Taking Back Your Thoughts and Emotions

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

When I was a young boy I took piano lessons for a number of years. In the early years, many of the songbooks I’d work through at my teacher’s prescription contained songs that were fun and also built crucial fundamental skills. One song I remember so clearly was called “Runaway Train.” This song was composed of two chords you played back and forth that sounded like a steam engine chugging, with an occasional whistle blow. The notes became shorter and shorter so that the pace of the train seemed to be getting faster and faster as if it were running away down a mountainside. Eventually, I mastered the pacing and finger control of this song, but initially I remember the more I attempted to increase my pace – as ‘the train ran away’ – the more I actually lost control until the song just became a muddled mess of noises.

Often in the fears, anxieties, and letdowns of our day-to-day lives, we can begin to feel like our entire world is like trying to play “Runaway Train.”

Everything seemed to start out okay, but before we knew it our hearts, minds, and actions became a frantic, out-of-control succession of muddled noise. In this series, I want to share with you some tools I use personally and with clients to help stop the runaway train that our thoughts and emotions can become. You can read the first post in this blog series here.

You may be reading this saying, “Jason, I feel like a runaway train but it isn’t because of my thoughts and emotions – it’s because all this stuff crumbling around me!” Let me begin by saying the last thing these tools mean is that your trials aren’t real. Life is comprised of the most breathtakingly beautiful and desperately dreadful moments and everything in-between, many of which we have far less control over than we wish or pretend. The control we do have in the midst of the trials is how we want to “be” in them and respond to them. When we don’t think about, exercise, and work toward consciously being the way we choose in the face of tough circumstances, within no time our negative thoughts and emotions will have us on the runaway train to anger, despair, loneliness, and numbing.

However, with some tools in our belt and intentional practice, eventually we can exercise our control so that – though the ‘train’ is speeding up and forcing us to uncomfortably keep up – we aren’t overwhelmed by it, and we can get through the trials without things escalating into a mess of muddled noise.

I hope you will join me in the coming months here as I walk through these tools and how to practice them. If you’re wanting a jump-start, or wanting some help learning these tools and practicing them, why not grab a friend and meet weekly to try them out? If you want a more in-depth experience putting these tools into practice today, give me a call or send an email and we can setup an appointment so you can begin taking back your thoughts and emotions, and living a more present and less frantic life.

Feeling your Feelings

Feeling your Feelings

 By Jonathan e. Hart, LPC

Human emotions are unpredictable, complex, surprising things.

Feelings. We all have them.  It can be confusing when we don’t understand the feeling we are experiencing, or why we are even experiencing it in the first place.  Often the feeling doesn’t seem to match the scenario that triggered it.

We humans seem rarely to question our emotions.  They exist as reflexes.  They occur without our choice or invitation.  When we don’t understand them, we usually try to rationalize them away or turn them off.  This gets us into trouble more often than not, because simply not feeling our emotional reflexes is like trying not to kick when the doctor thumps us at the knee with the little mallet.   

The discipline that will help understand our emotional reflexes is to practice feeling them.  Learn what they physiologically feel like.  Does it burst or contract?  Does it rise or fall?  Does it feel like a flutter or a weight? Do I get hot or cold in my face, hands, etc.?  Where in my body do I feel it?  What does it make me want to do?   

This may seem silly, but all of our emotions have a physiological component.  We talk about our bodies and our minds and our feelings as though they are separate things.  We do this because we have to in order to be able to talk about them and learn about them.  But body, heart, and mind are all one thing.   

Think about the last time you got startled.  Chances are you jumped or twitched somehow.  Your heart rate accelerated and you experienced a sharp intake of breath.  You did not choose these things.  They happened.  They are the physiological component of the feeling of fear.  It passed quickly enough when you realized that there was no real danger, but they happened nonetheless.

Slowing down and taking the time to feel our feelings is particularly difficult when the feeling that is present is a negative one like fear or anger or loss.  

This process requires us to sit in the feeling, to allow it to exist without making it better.  This process requires the work of deliberately NOT managing the feeling, but rather observing it in order to understand it.

When we do this, we gain an edge.  We cultivate the skill of awareness.  We will more quickly recognize the feeling when it arises again, and more quickly be able to understand ourselves.  We gain a delay between when we feel and what we do next.  We can use this delay to make a conscious, careful choice about our next step rather than simply doing what the feeling tells us to do.  Particularly in relationship, this thoughtful choice can be the difference between a healthy, responsible interaction and a reactive, destructive one.  

In order to begin learning how to do this, take a moment and think about a mild emotion.  Don’t start with a really big feeling.  Think about the physical feel of it.  Cultivate an understanding of this physiological component, and pay attention.  You might be surprised by how often you feel that same feeling in other places.

When you’ve got a bit of practice with this, you can begin working on larger feelings, like the ones that rise up around conflict or arguments.  Again, slow down and pay attention.  You may be surprised by what you learn.

How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

Smile, Pout-Pout Fish…Or Don’t: How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Do the books we read to our children cultivate emotional intelligence, or communicate subtle messages discouraging awareness and honest expression of feelings?

Smile, Mr. Fish! You look so down. With your glum-glum face and your pout-pout frown. No need to be worried. No need to be sad. No need to be scared. No need to be mad! How about a smooch? And a cheer-up wish? Now you look happy: what a smile, Mr. Fish!

Of all the books my little one loves, this one most often gets relentlessly stuck in my head! With its well-crafted rhyme and adorable pictures, it captivates its little (and big) audience quite well. But the subtle message of the book has always made me a bit uneasy: you shouldn’t be sad, worried, or scared; there, you’re happy, that’s acceptable and good.  I realize there is a strong possibility that I am over-analyzing the book, but at the same time, I think subtle messages like this are important to be mindful of – both that we have been taught and that we are passing along to our kids (or nieces/nephews, friends’ kids, etc.).

If taken too far, a child can internalize that the only acceptable emotion is to be happy…which will have great consequences in his or her ability cultivate emotional intelligence and to healthily navigate life.

Accordingly, I found this article, published by the Gottman Institute, to be very helpful in identifying the following three do’s and don’ts for developing a child’s emotional intelligence:

  • Do recognize negative emotions as an opportunity to connect. Don’t punish, dismiss, or scold your child for being emotional.

    Do help your child label their emotions. — Don’t convey judgment or frustration.

  • Do set limits and problem-solve. — Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to learn and grow.

 

Given these guides, perhaps a helpful re-write of the book might read like this:

Hey, Mr. Fish, you look so down. With your glum, glum face and your pout, pout frown. Come sit beside me, I see your broken toy has made you sad. I would be, too, if it was the favorite toy I had. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be mad. But we cannot hit and we cannot squeal. How else can you show the sadness you feel?

 

 

 

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

What if I don’t feel grateful?

What if I don’t feel grateful?

by: Andy Gear, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

20648028973_184236efa9_mRecently I was in a group where they talked about how important gratitude is for living a happy and healthy life. I remember thinking “yeah, sure, that’s all fine and good, but what if you don’t feel grateful?”

They explained to me that gratitude isn’t primarily a feeling; it’s a discipline. It’s like a muscle that we can strengthen or allow to atrophy. And there are a number of ways we can exercise our gratitude muscle:

Make a list of what you have to be grateful for every day

Keep a gratitude journal. It can be just a simple notebook or something more elaborate. Schedule a time to write five things you have to be grateful for daily. If you do it every morning, you will remember it throughout the day. If you do it at night, then it will shape how you look back at that whole day. (After a while, you’ll find that you’re having a lot more good days). The list doesn’t have to be of big things. In fact, it’s better if they’re not. Even the smallest positive event counts.

The simple act of bringing to mind the good things in your life has a huge impact on your wellbeing. But it takes intentionality to notice the good. We are much more skilled at noticing the negative things that happen to us. They tend to stick out more than the good. (And when you’re depressed your brain actually goes to negative memories more easily). So it takes an act of the will, a habit, to make your brain notice the positive. You will be surprised by the results. In time, your feelings will follow.

Strengthen gratitude by looking outward

Another way to exercise your gratitude muscle is to notice those around you in difficult situations. They can be close to home or on the other side of the world, but they can’t be people to whom you usually compare yourself. Comparison is toxic to gratitude; it is like gratitude kryptonite. The purpose of comparison is to judge (either your self or the other). This leads to dissatisfaction on one hand or pride on the other. Either way, it’s destructive to gratitude.

Looking outward is different. Its purpose is to empathize and help. Helping someone is invigorating, provides a sense of purpose, improves self-perception, and helps put your blessings in perspective. Not only that, but it benefits someone who needs you and gives them a reason to be grateful.

Purposefully remember in hard times

There are times where it is hard to be grateful. This is just reality. Seasons in life are hard, painful, and seemingly hopeless. During these times it can be difficult to think of current things that make you feel grateful. In these periods, it helps to look intentionally at the past and the future. Remind yourself of good events from your past and dwell on potential positive opportunities in the future. This is a habit that you have to nurture; it won’t happen automatically.

Our brains can get stuck in a negative rut, but we can short-circuit our brains by forcing ourselves to consider other options. Think of yourself as a lawyer cross-examining your negative brain. Bring evidence of any positive experience to the jury of your mind. Look back for anything, however small, that disproves the case being made that your life has been uninterrupted tragedy. Then look forward for any possibility that things will be better than you are currently expecting.

Extra Credit

For extra credit, you can make a list of five positive outcomes that could happen in your future. Developing a positive view of your future is a great antidote for hopelessness. (Notice that I said developing a positive view). A life of gratitude doesn’t just happen overnight; it has to be nurtured, exercised, and grown.

Having an attitude of gratitude is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. Consider starting a gratitude journal today. Your brain will thank you.

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

3 Essential Questions to Ask Yourself When Big Feelings Happen

(#3 is the real kicker!)

If you’re looking for a way to keep from losing your mind when big feelings happen, I’m going to suggest these 3 essential questions to ask yourself.

First let’s define “Big Feelings”. These are feelings that swell up and burst in a nanosecond. It happens as quickly as a reflex (because they usually *are* reflexes, not choices!).   A sudden, very intense feeling of anger, offense, rejection, hurt, or other similar powerful emotions.   Often you may be able to recognize that the intensity you are feeling seems out of proportion to the thing that seems to have caused it.

Avenues Counseling

 

The Big Feeling is generally accompanied by a strong reaction of some kind: you erupt in anger, you run and hide, or maybe you shut down and withdraw. Whatever you do, it seems automatic.

So the three questions are a tool you can use to get underneath the reflex and understand what is pushing you around. The end goal is to gain enough understanding and distance from the feeling that you can intelligently choose what you are going to do next, rather than letting the feeling dictate your actions.

Question #1: What is the feeling? This seems simple at first: “I’m ANGRY, you idiot!! Isn’t that obvious?!”   Not so fast. Usually with an emotion like anger or offense, there is a softer feeling that comes first. Think of a parent that sees their child playing in the street. They react in anger: “What have I told you about playing in the street??” But the first feeling is fear: “I’m afraid you are going to get hurt or killed!!”

The key to mastering Question #1 is volume: wrap *a lot* of words around the feeling. Go into as much detail as you can. What does it physically feel like? Where do I feel it in my body? Is there motion to it? Does it rise or fall? Move forward or retreat? Burst or crush? It’s probably more than just one feeling, so what else is there? How many synonyms or clarifying words can you come up with to describe this feeling? These are just some examples, but hopefully it’s enough to get started.

Question #2: Why is it there? This question moves from what’s happening inside you to your immediate surroundings. What just happened to trigger this feeling?   Again, it seems obvious at first. “I’m pissed because you’re a jerk.” This part may be true, but let’s go a bit deeper, shall we? Get into the layer of meaning. What is it about that word, that action, that tone of voice that makes it so intense? Does it tell you they think you’re worthless? That they don’t respect you? That they’re not going to hear anything you have to say no matter what? Again, get into as much detail as you can.

Question #3: Where does it come from? We’re still dealing with the feeling that you named in question #1. Answering this question can be extremely informative, as well as kind of scary. The goal of this question is to discover where in your story, as far back as you can remember, have you felt this feeling before? Often, as you think about the physical sensation of the feeling, the answer comes quickly. It may be a specific story or event. A moment that, though it happened 10 years ago or 30 years ago, is crystallized in your mind so clearly you can remember what you were wearing.

It may not be a specific moment, but rather a type of moment. The feeling might be connected to something that happened often enough that specific moments are lost in the sheer number of them. What remains is the impression of “always”. “We always had to… He always said… It was always like this… Whenever I saw/heard/felt this, I knew…”.

Discovering your answer to Question #3 can sometimes be like a bomb going off in your mind and heart. All of a sudden you realize that you are connecting two different stories together, and that the old story is what you’re really angry at (or afraid of). Maybe the two stories are similar enough that they feel the same, and it’s the kind of story you never want to be a part of ever again.

Gaining this understanding is absolutely essential to developing the capacity to thoughtfully respond to the triggering situation rather than reacting out of the power of your emotions. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting you ignore what you feel, but that you seek to understand what you feel clearly so that you can deal with it intelligently.

Big Feelings are tough to handle. They always will be. But you don’t have to blow up or disappear when they happen. The Three Questions are intended to help you be able to stand up, speak your peace, and seek resolution in a healthier way. Rather than getting lost in the fog of confusion, fear, or anger, you can engage with openness, clarity, and self-control.

-by Jonathan Hart, LPC

The Power of And

The power of and: Bonnie and Clyde.  Chocolate and peanut butter.  Bert and Ernie.  They just go together, right?  The “and” works because we know (or have at least learned from others) that they fit together.  You can have one without the other but most would say neither would be quite as good or complete.

 

“And” is good.  “And” is how it should be.

But sometimes in life, we encounter circumstances that simultaneously press on both joy and sadness, hope and fear, relief and great grief.  Emotions that don’t feel like they should go together.

Avenues Counseling

You just had a baby; you are excited to be a mom and also really sad to lose the independence and freedom you used to have. You have a workaholic dad who doesn’t always have time for you; you love and respect him and have also been really hurt by him.  Your spouse just lost a long battle with cancer; you are devastated by the loss and also relieved that you are no longer overwhelmed by being the 24/7 caregiver.

Emotions that don’t feel like they should go together.  And in the midst of trying to make sense of them, we hear those voices in our head (or perhaps very audibly from those around us) that only one side of that “and” is the acceptable response or proper set of emotions to feel given the circumstance you are walking through. The way you “should” feel.  So the other, very real side of the “and” gets stuffed down inside with a sufficient dose of shame heaped on top.  It’s not allowed to be felt or talked about or acknowledged with anyone.  What would they think if they knew? How can both of these seemingly conflicting feelings be real?

For those of you who resonate with this, what would it look like for you to allow yourself to sit in the tension between your “and”? To be honest with yourself to see that you are feeling both the “acceptable” response to your circumstance as well as the “unacceptable” or less acknowledged response.  And to give yourself room to feel both sides of your “and”.  To grieve where there is sadness and identify what has been lost.  To rejoice where there is goodness or something gained. And to realize that giving way to one emotion does not negate the very real experience of or reality of the other.

And when you encounter a friend experiencing an emotion that “shouldn’t” be felt, I encourage you to sit and listen. To take a moment to put yourself in their shoes…really in their shoes.  And consider whether you might also be feeling a similar seemingly conflict of emotions. And then give them room to experience both sides of their “and”.

The power of “and” is freedom – freedom from shame, freedom to be honest, and freedom to be whole.

 

By Melinda Seley, PLPC

Gloomy weather, gloomy mood

By: Katy Martin, LPC

Is it just me, or does it feel like it’s FINALLY Fall?  It IS November, after all.  The weather is cooler, the leaves are changing and dropping, and time has fallen back.  It’s great for backyard fires, football, walks outside, and playing in leaves.  Well, some of us look forward to these things.
Along with the crisp weather, can bring some gloominess.  A change in mood, along with a change in temperature.  Have you ever paid attention to how the changing seasons affect you?  Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing, and I think it often gets overlooked with the distraction and excitement of the upcoming holidays.  Some characteristics include but are not limited to sadness, fatigue, and hopeless thoughts.  These depressive symptoms can feel as gray as the clouds outside.
We are all affected by change, some more than others.  I’d encourage you to explore the severity of your feelings and talk to someone.  There are simple things we can do to combat the winter blues: finding time to exercise, avoiding isolation by making plans with others, eating well, and exposure to sunlight when possible or even light therapy.  Some times it’s helpful to speak with your doctor or counselor if it’s affecting your daily life.
Don’t let the winter blues get the best of you!!