self-care

Survival Tips for the Holidays

by Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

Here are a few small tips for changing the ways you engage with your relatives around the holidays. It isn’t easy to change the ways we relate to people we’ve known most or all of our lives, but it is often worth the work. This list is by no means conclusive, but a good place to start.

Take people at their word.

Try to notice how often you are attempting to read between the lines of others’ words or times when you feel expected to know what someone else feels or wants without them actually saying anything. Reading between the lines or finding the hidden meeting is common in family systems that operate more passive aggressively. Taking people at their word forces others to speak up on their own behalf, say what they really mean, and address one another with respect.

Mean your words.

The reverse of taking people at their words is true as well. If you are frequently not saying what you truly mean, then feel upset when others are not doing as you want, odds are you were not meaning your words. Speak directly and kindly, and you can avoid many of the passive-aggressive communication games that conflict avoidant families tend to get bogged down in.

Check your expectations.

Holidays are filled with expectations and typically time with family is also, therefore holidays with family members can be a double whammy. It can become the perfect traffic jam of various expectations.

Know your limits.

Try to realistically assess your limits on various planes prior to making your holiday plans. Are there certain family members you have a lower tolerance for spending time around? Is your social/extroversion threshold depleted more quickly at family gatherings? Are there certain relatives’ houses where you become a worse version of yourself longer you stay? Does being around babies and toddlers bring out the worst in you? Is your alcohol tolerance lowered in family settings? Assessing your limits prior to making your plans can help you make a more informed choice, and perhaps plan action steps toward self-care when you can’t predict that your limits will be tested and or pushed.

Know your triggers.

This one is similar to knowing your limits, in that it can be helpful to do some self-assessment prior to walking into family dynamics that are laden with emotional landmines. Try to think about instances in the past when time spent with family has led to blow-ups, arguments, hurt feelings, or even the silent (or shouted) conclusion that you’ll never go back again. Try to see if there’s a pattern between these various situations. Do you tend to be triggered by your mom’s passive aggressive comments? Do you tend to be triggered by your brother’s constant bragging about his successful career? Do you tend to be triggered by your niece talking all of the toys leaving them for the other cousins? Whatever your triggers, knowing them in advance can help prevent them from being a surprise, or even activated at all.

Make a private game of unavoidable unpleasantries.

Now, this is a little bit nuanced because it needs to be done discreetly and with wisdom, but can be helpful in surviving unavoidable unpleasantries. However, if you and your spouse or sibling share a negative feeling towards a person or behavior, you can make a private game out of how often you have to witness or endure that behavior. For example: does your dad tend to condescendingly correct other peoples grammar? Making bets on how often that will happen during the time that you spend with him. Does your aunt make snide comments under her breath? Rather than fume as you, it can be a survival strategy to find a way to laugh about it. What makes this game nuanced is you certainly don’t want others to find out about it or extend it to the point of being disrespectful.

Stopping the Runaway Train – Part IV: How to Name Our Experience

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

Here is the final blog in this series about gaining control over our emotions. 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, and the importance of naming our experience. Here we are looking at how to go about naming our experience.

If you’re tired of being pushed around by the runaway train, and you’ve begun implementing regular relaxation exercises in your life, the next step is to really look at and accept the emotional experience present. For some this is easier than others, but for all of us we have a stunted emotional vocabulary so it can be helpful to use a chart of emotion words like the one below.

 

Take a minute and think of a recent conflict where you remember feeling overwhelmed internally. Think of the details of that situation – recount it in your mind. Are you feeling a bit of what you felt in your body then? Perhaps a tightness in the chest, or a sickness in your stomach, or a warmth in your arms and hands, or feeling like you just want to run out of the room – notice whatever is going on in your body as these are clues to our emotional experience. Now take a look at this chart. Notice we have all the words we typically use for emotion: happy, angry, sad, fearful, bad, surprised, disgusted. Try to identify which of these seems to fit what you’re experiencing, and then take it to the next outer-ring to further define that emotion. If you’re sad, are you lonely, vulnerable, despairing, guilty, depressed, hurt?

It may be more than one and that’s okay – emotions are complex.

You may find one of the more specific words that describe your experience are actually in an entirely different category than you thought. Perhaps you thought you were angry, but as you move through the layers you realize really you feel powerless. This chart certainly isn’t the master formula of all emotion, but it can be a helpful starting point to broaden our vocabulary of our internal world. Often we experience more than one emotion at the same time – and even those seem to contradict one another at times. We are complicated beings! The idea is to put words to what we are experiencing so we fully have a handle on just what’s going on inside us at the moment.

Again, it may seem silly or simple, but naming our emotional experience as precisely as we can is a crucial step in stopping the runaway train. Naming it period is actually a way in which we take back power, by putting boundaries around this experience and defining it rather than letting it define us.

Once we can precisely define our emotional experience, we will then be ready to explore why it’s there, whether it’s helping us or not, and how it may relate to our past wounds that are perhaps still pushing us around to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: Russel Tarr, Using Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions to improve the evaluation of sources (Available at: http://www.classtools.net/blog/using-plutchiks-wheel-of-emotions-to-improve-the-evaluation-of-sources/, last accessed February 20, 2017).

Shame and Contempt, Part 2: In our Daily Lives

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

My previous blog is this series proposed that shame and contempt shape our worlds more than we know.  Do they? Here I am going to look at the vicious villians of shame and contempt in our daily lives. Listen to your words and your thoughts.  Pay attention to your verbs.

It may surprise you how often you use “being” verbs in your daily life to describe yourselves and others.

Daily Contemp

Every time I shout at another driver in traffic, “Idiot!” (the full sentence by implication is “You are an idiot!”) I express contempt.  I express my feeling that the other driver’s intelligence is defective, that they are in their very being worthless.  And this, because they did something careless or something that I didn’t expect.

Daily Shame

When I make a mess of things, make a mistake or deliberately do or say something hurtful, if I beat myself up about it, I am operating in shame.  “Idiot!  I can’t believe I did that.”  I am expressing self-contempt, saying that because of this thing, and maybe others like it, I am of no real value in the world.  I believe that everyone who hears of it would agree, and that they would be correct in having me summarily executed, that the world would be better off without me.

Living Truthfully

Of course, we don’t articulate either of these thoughts fully.  If we were to articulate them fully, we would have to retract our statements.

So if (a) Shame and Contempt themselves are lies in their essence, and (b) most often we don’t really believe in the full extent of what we are actually saying, then there is a lot of falseness in our daily lives that we simply accept as “normal”.

Listen to your verbs.  I challenge you to change your being verbs into descriptive action verbs and see what changes in your experience as you walk about your life.  –JH

(Coming Soon: The Flipside of Shame and Contempt)

Wellness in the New Year

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

With a new year comes New Year’s resolutions.  People use the New Year to take stock of how the past year went and what changes or goals they hope to make for the upcoming year. What does wellness look like for you in 2017?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) “defines wellness not as the absence of disease, illness, or stress but the presence of purpose in life, active involvement in satisfying work and play, joyful relationships, a healthy body and living environment, and happiness”  (Source: www.samhsa.gov).

I like that to pursue wellness does not mean that my life is perfect or easy.

To pursue wellness means I am pursuing a purpose and seeking joy. Wellness means that I am seeking healthy relationships, a healthy body, and a healthy environment.   SAMHSA has created eight dimensions of wellness: Emotional, Environmental, Financial, Intellectual, Occupational, Physical, Social, and Spiritual.  One of the great things about this Wellness model is that many of the categories overlap with each other.

Even if my work life adds a lot of stress to my day to day functioning I can still pursue my own wellness. That may look like exercising to increase some of the needed endorphins in my body.  It may mean I pursue some environmental changes and wellness. I can’t quit my job, but I can create space in my home in which I find peace and rest. It may also mean that I create an environment at my desk where I am reminded of positive relationships and purpose. Wellness may also look like me pursuing relationships with co-workers in an intentional way to make my environment more comfortable.

Some of our life stressors may not change too much over the coming year.  We can lose some weight, cut back on the alcohol, go to counseling, or try a new hobby; but will these things balance out the negative experiences?  Wellness allows us to hold in tension the stressful and negative parts of life, recognizing we can still find good.

Where can you find the joy and play in your life this year?  How can you pursue wholeness and wellness in life?

Relaxation Part 1: Stopping the Runaway Train

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

Relaxation is an important and often overlooked skill that is helpful in dealing with anxiety, stress, and anger.

I could barely see straight as I grunted out some breaths. My friend had tackled me and pulled me aside in an effort to stop me. I remember being so overwhelmed with anger I was crying, hyperventilating, and scraping bark off the tree next to me with my fingernails. I was maybe 12 years old, and I had lost it in the middle of a pickup football game.

I looked crazy to my friends. I felt crazy to myself. But, the anger I was feeling was not crazy, and the rejection and humiliation underneath that anger was very, very real. One of the other boys, I’ll call him Jimmy, had been picking on me and suggesting I was cheating. In my escalating anger I blitzed him, and Jimmy threw the football as hard as he could at my face. In that moment, my interpretation of what was going on fueled a neurochemical takeover of my body – it felt like I could see what I was doing, was horrified by it, but could not stop this stranger I found myself inhabiting from pummeling Jimmy into the ground.

There are real reasons why my body felt this way that will be the fodder for another blog. There are also real reasons why this moment, though seemingly small, triggered an enormous amount of rejection and anger that – though valid – did not entirely come from the situation at hand. But, the question today is, what do we do when we find ourselves in a similar spot? Though it won’t treat the roots of these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, how can we at least slow down the runaway train and function in a healthier way?

One of the first tools in slowing down the runaway train is slowing down period.

It sounds silly. Or obvious. But, an incredible difference can be had if in these moments we can learn to slow our bodies down. One way we can do this is by learning and practicing breathing exercises designed to relax your body.

You’ve probably heard someone say to you or others before, “Now, just take some deep breaths!” In the moment, you might have found yourself wanting to pummel them, too! Our emotions can be big and feel overpowering in the moment, which is often why it feels impossible to stop. This is why it is so important for us to regularly practice things like relaxation breathing when we are not entirely overwhelmed – so that it becomes more and more natural.

So, right now, why don’t you take a minute wherever you are – literally take 60 seconds to try this. Find a quiet place or some headphones (check out Calm.com for soothing background noise), sit comfortably, with your back straight, your feet flat on the ground. You can have your hands in your lap, or on your thighs. Set an alarm for 1 minute, close your eyes, and begin with some deep breaths – breathing in through your nose, and out through your mouth. These breaths should be nice and slow, and from your gut not your chest – act like your belly is a balloon and you are trying to inflate it and deflate it. In – and out. In – and out. Practice just focusing on your breathing, slowly, consistently, from your diaphragm.

Once your minute is up, take stock in how you feel. What does this moment feel like, versus the moments you were reading this blog just before? Try this exercise every day for a week when you get home from work. What do you notice? Then, maybe try it as you notice some situations that activate some mild emotion.

As you gradually practice this breathing with increasingly challenging moments, you will find this tool is actually an available choice to you when your body tries to take you over with the runaway train.

It really works! It doesn’t answer the questions of why we are feeling and thinking these things to begin with – these questions need answers and healing if we want to live as whole people. But, it does help us survive the runaway train with less damage to ourselves and others. If you want some help, some more tools, or to delve more deeply into the roots behind these thoughts and emotions, send me an email or give me a call. I’d be glad to join you on this journey to take back control and discover who you really are.

“The Art of Distraction”

“The Art of Distraction”

by: Jason Pogue, PLPC

My wife and I are soon expecting our first child. We are excited and terrified all at once, and this spurs us on to read and talk with those who have gone through it all before. Though much of what we are practicing are techniques for ‘letting go’ and letting her body do what it was made to do, some of the techniques are purely in the realm of distraction. When the pain is so great, how can you or your partner distract you from it? These techniques for childbirth aren’t much different than the “techniques” we all pick up over time in a pain-filled world. I am reminded of this statement I’ve heard from a number of different wiser and older friends and mentors:

“No human being can fully bear the weight of reality.”

Even though I agree with this statement I can often feel as though I should be able to fully bear the weight of it all…that to set the pain and sorrow aside for a moment is actually being inauthentic or callous toward others or myself. When this feeling of should is not actually coming from others, I can still shame myself for spending an hour in distraction with television, or avoiding what I think I need to be doing in that moment. But is distraction always a problem?

The truth is that reality is a mix of both beauty and brokenness – both joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Yet often we can find the sorrow and pain winning out…snuffing out our joy. It only takes a few minutes of reading the news to be overwhelmed by the amount of violence, death, corruption, hatred, deception, and malice in the world around us. If we were to remove every bit of distraction from our lives and force our eyes open upon the unending wounds of the world, we would be swallowed up by grief. Though it is a painfully important exercise to wrestle with the big questions of life, to constantly live in this place would be simply unbearable.

The question is not whether distraction is good or bad, but what kind of distraction(s) are we involved in and how flexible are they? Taking some alone time to listen to music is a far more healthy a distraction than drinking until you black out. A good distraction, or coping-mechanism can assist you to bear through an excessively painful or overwhelming moment until you are in a safe enough place to process what has occurred.

More than just assessing the kind of distractions we engage in, a healthy arsenal of coping mechanisms assesses how flexible our distractions are – after all, you probably can’t go into a room and listen to music for an hour when you have a presentation to give at work or when your little boy is crying because he is hungry again! Consider one healthy coping mechanism of sharing what your internal experience is with someone else – this can be hugely beneficial in calming our bodies down and feeling known, but it would be entirely destructive to engage in with an abusive listener waiting to use our vulnerability against us. Sometimes the ways we’ve been wounded erode our ability to assess one person from another, and instead of engaging in the appropriate coping mechanism we simply choose one way of relating to everyone.

The problem is not distraction, or coping mechanisms – these can be a gift at times to get us through unbearable moments. The problem is when a particular distraction or coping mechanism becomes our only answer to the pain, is destructive to our lives, or continuously takes the place of ever actually returning to the pain and sorrow that resides within us and in our world.

So how are you doing with the art of distraction? If you aren’t able to cope, or are seeing destructive, rigid, or unending distraction taking over your life I invite you to give us a call to meet with a counselor, grow these skills, and process the emotional turmoil beneath it all. You have the ability to not only survive the grief of this world, but to work through it so that you can take joy in your day-to-day life. Why not start using it today?

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

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

 Can't Sign

“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.