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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.

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?

Men, Sexual Trauma, and Healing…

Men, Sexual Trauma, and Healing…

by Frank Theus, LPC

Back in October 2014, I wrote a blog article entitled Abused Boys http://avenuescounselingcenter.org/abused-boys. My commentary invited readers to enter into an ongoing blogversation shattering the silence specifically for men who were discovering that they were survivors of sexual trauma, in particular, and other forms of abuse. Now two years later, in light of the work I do as a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT®), I felt the need to re-visit this e-discussion.

Did you know that according the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) 1 in 10 men* – that’s 10% of the male population – have suffered trauma resultant from sexual assault.

Per U.S. Census data that would translate into the following:

  • Approximate # of Males in the U.S. 138,053,563 (49.1% of gen’l population) = 13.9 million Male sexual assault victims*
  • Approximate # of Males in St. Louis County 493,000 = 49,300 Male sexual assault victims*

Imagine with me what these numbers might mean to you. If you attend a church service on Sunday morning, which has on average 185 persons in attendance; and, if it reflected the U.S. general population, there would be approximately 91 male attendees. Of that number there would likely be nine fellow image bearers of God who are sitting next to you, serving alongside of you, suffering in silence regarding their past abuse or assault. These men aren’t numbers, they are our fathers, brothers, nephews, grandsons, veterans, coworkers, clergy, coaches, elders, deacons, husbands, neighbors, bosses, friends…

But Who Would Do This?

  • “Those who sexually assault men or boys differ in a number of ways from those who assault only females.
  • Boys are more likely than girls to be sexually abused by strangers or by authority figures in organizations such as schools, the church, or athletics programs.
  • Those who sexually assault males usually choose young men and male adolescents (the average age is 17 years old) as their victims and are more likely to assault many victims, compared to those who sexually assault females.
  • Perpetrators often assault young males in isolated areas where help is not readily available. For instance, a perpetrator who assaults males may pick up a teenage hitchhiker on a remote road or find some other way to isolate his intended victim.
  • As is true about those who assault and sexually abuse women and girls, most perpetrators of males are men. Specifically, men are perpetrators in about 86 out of every 100 (or 86%) of male victimization cases.
  • Despite popular belief that only gay men would sexually assault men or boys, most male perpetrators identify themselves as heterosexuals and often have consensual sexual relationships with women.
  • These same male victims may have an additional burden of confusion, shame and humiliation if their abuser was a female.” (VA)
  • Early onset exposure to pornography due to adult permissiveness (neglect) or intentionality (abuse). (Theus)
  • Covert incest wherein the male child feels more like the emotional-romantic-surrogate partner to mom. (Adams)

As these men make their way into counseling and, in particular, the ones who come to see me for my help as a CSAT®, it’s usually due to problematic/at-risk behaviors around sex and sexuality that they have sought to hide for so many years but now has exploded into the light of day. These hurting men are at a tipping point or have “hit bottom” and, much like someone drowning, desperately need rescue.

As the rescue operation unfolds it oftentimes reveals a life story of various forms of at-risk behaviors from adolescence into adulthood, porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED), STDs, immersed in shame-guilt, feeling stigmatized, dissociating, confusion, distorted-negative core beliefs, lack of boundaries, anxiety-depression-PTSD, anger, and addictive-compulsive behaviors around the use of substances and other process addictions (e.g. money, work, gambling, food, video gaming, and tanning) as an attempt to have “control”, to “survive”, to “escape” and/or to “numb out”.

As important as it is to know that rescue has been extended, my clients begin to realize that what they are undertaking is a journey into sustainable sobriety-recovery and wholeness of their mind, body, spirit, and vital core relationships.

This process is akin to a crucible, yet one wherein the client is extended invitations to explore the deepest issues of their heart in order to grow deeper insights and tools to engage their stories, past, present, and future with real courage and hope. (Allender)

Are you ready to journey? I pray you are.

 

*NOTE: Many believe – as do I — that the actual conservative number is 1:6 men or 17% of the male population has been sexually abused. If so, the above numbers would be adjusted to:

24 million men nationally
84,00 men within the county
15 men inside our sanctuaries.

 


Resources:
www.1in6.org
http://www.malesurvivor.org/index.php
Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse by Mic Hunter, PsyD
Allies in Healing: When the person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child by Laura Davis
Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age by Robt Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S & Jennifer Schneider, M.D.
Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction by Robt Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
The Healing Path: How the Hurts in Your Past Can Lead You to a More Abundant Life by Dan Allender, PhD
The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Dan Allender, PhD
Victims No Longer: Men Recovering from Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse by Mike Lew, MSW
Wounded Boys, Heroic Men: A Man’s Guide to Recovering from Child Abuse by Daniel Jay Sonkin, PhD and Lenore E. A. Walker, EdD

How to Heal the Hurt

Part 1: Why Does It Hurt So Bad?

by Isaac Knopp, PLPC

Relationships can be a major source of pain. The following kind of dialogue is common amongst couples.

Him: My wife is always saying hurtful things that make me feel so small. I just get frustrated and feel like whatever I try to do does not make a difference to her. 

Her: Every time I bring up an issue, he just leaves the conversation or says he does not want to argue anymore. I don’t feel like he understands how much his silence is stressing me out.

As a human being, a counselor, and someone who is married myself, I know how easy it is to experience disconnection. Personally, I resonate with the above couple. Especially when attempts at repairing relationships seemingly end up pushing each other away. 

Is it really a mystery why our emotional connection with our partner goes wrong? Can we not simply name it outright?

When couples come to me talking about their hurt feelings saying, “I don’t know why it hurts so bad, I’m an adult, I should be able to handle it.” I am inclined to take these statements literally, it does hurt! Pain is not entirely a metaphor about other unresolved issues we should grow out of. Pain hurts because having a secure emotional bond is vital to the human mind as bread and water are to the body.

As humans and mammals, with highly sophisticated limbic systems, we need secure emotional bonds with our partner as a part of our built in survival code.

The good news is that we do have a road map for relationships like never before!

Why do I speak about this as a breakthrough revelation? Because it is! In only the last fifteen to twenty years, “science is, at last, beginning to address the core mysteries of human relationships” (Berscheid, 1999, p. 206). We now know that when we are even in the proximity of a loved one, their presence alone acts as a tranquilizer to the nervous system (Schore, 1994). On the flip side, when we feel like our partner is not available or responsive to us, our nervous system receives a shock that can put us in a state of distress. 

Further, we also know that the result of a literal shock is pretty predictable. If I were to stick my finger in an electrical socket, I would receive a shock which would more or less incapacitate me. So, when we are not able to make the vital connection we need in love, often we do not realize we have experienced a shock of another kind that sends us reeling. Usually we react out of our sense of distress. The dialogue mentioned above is very predictable. A man trying to manage his own reaction by withdrawing, and the wife trying to manage her reaction by protesting his withdrawal.

If we truly do have a new understanding of love, how with this help the hurting couple?

Simply put, when a couple understands their emotional bond with their partner they have the tools to work through their distress.

Johnson, Susan M. (2012-02-24). Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection (Basic Principles Into Practice Series) (p. 24, p. 26). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Stress During the Holidays

Stress During the Holidays

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

This is a time of year full of stress. We are quickly approaching Christmas, Hanukkah, and the New Year.  This is a season when we spend a lot of time celebrating both with friends and family.  It can also be a time where we experience increased stress and pressure.  Knowing you are soon going to be spending long hours with your family, how do you prepare?

Below are some tips or ideas to help make the holiday celebrations more manageable and enjoyable.

Exercise: Research shows that exercise can help to increase your positive mood and fight against feelings of anxiety and depression.  Exercise while with family can also provide that needed space for quiet or reflection, smaller group conversations, or stress relief, and it can create a personal “time out” from the stressors you are experiencing.

Change your Intake: Limit certain foods and beverages during the holidays.  “Eating your feelings” may help for a short time, but it won’t change once the sugar has worn off or the alcohol is no longer in your system. Also, change your physical and emotional intake.

  • Caffeine can mirror symptoms of anxiety in our bodies.  If you are already feeling anxious about the holidays cut back a little on your intake or switch to decaf.  Increasing alcohol may seem to help in the moment, but it can later impact your sleep and mood.
  • Change up the environment.  If you start to feel overwhelmed, take a short walk outside (even if it is only to the mailbox or to your car).  Listen to some relaxing music or watch a funny video. Create a break in the day to clear your head and check in with your own emotions. Changing the experience around you can help to recalibrate your mood.

Reality Check:  When you get stuck talking to Aunt Mildred, who is telling you how to live your life, graciously break away from the conversation and connect with someone with a more positive attitude. That connection can be via personal contact, a phone call or even a text.  Use your social network to your advantage! Do an internal check of the facts from your conversation or experience.

When our thoughts become misconstrued or faulty it can lead to more negative emotional experiences and more stress in our relationships.

Prayer/Mindfulness/Meditation: Take a few moments each day during your holiday season for reflection.  During this time, take time to notice and observe.  Use your five senses to experience the season by noticing the decorations, the lights, the sounds, the special foods, the activities, clothing.  Be fully present while wrapping gifts, paying attention to the feel and sounds of the paper.  Push all the thoughts from your mind but the present moment.  Take time to give thanks, rejoice and celebrate the kindness you have experienced.

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.

Perfectionism and Blogging

Perfectionism and Blogging

by Frank Theus, LPC

In my line of work as a therapist writing a blog or contributing to one is considered part and parcel of the profession; in fact, I know many fellow therapists who attest to how much they enjoy writing informally via a forum that invites conversation. Perfectionism has stood in my way before now.

“Every time I write a [blog], I have to remind myself that all I have to worry about is the next paragraph.” – Donald Miller

However, what does a therapist-blogger do when the writing becomes de rigueur du jour and try as best they can simply can’t lift a pen, or type out the next word much less “…the next paragraph” (Miller)?

Ignore the panic attacks? Obfuscate, deny, and delay regarding the topic and proposed deadlines? Stop writing? Quit the job? Does any of this seem extreme to you? Well, hello, I’m that guy who has been there, done that, and has those t-shirts.

You see, I hate to write. Duh!

Writing’s a powerful medium that can expose the author’s heart-life leaving them vulnerable to evaluation and critique – real or imagined – by others; and, my basic survival instinct wants no part of that. Perfectionism won out. Are you able to relate?

You see I’m recovering from perfectionism, triggered by the thought of writing, grammar, punctuation, and (reasonable) expectations of me around this topic. For a variety of reasons I failed to learn the basics in secondary school and later in my undergraduate years. In Abba’s infinite and providential sense of humor I was thrust into leadership roles within professions that required me to write for the sake of other’s careers. No pressure there. Right?!

But writing didn’t get easier for me then or by the time I went through graduate school as a 50-something reinventing retiree, or afterward here at Avenues Counseling. Finally, I shared my angst with my boss and we agreed I’d take a mini-sabbatical from writing. I wish I could say I used this holiday to constructively reflect, engage in intense psychotherapy to get at the root causes of my graphophobia, become a modern day contemplative Reformed-Benedictine, to journal (God forbid) but I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I more often than not simply disengaged from any thought of ever writing again. I was good with that.

But here I am. Writing. Haltingly so. Imperfectly, and [relatively] free. What happened? I’m not sure; and, I don’t know that I have to have it all figured out.

Whatever the “it” is in your life that keeps you stuck or otherwise diminishes your quality of life maybe the first step is to be kind and gentle with yourself and to simply acknowledge it aloud.

But don’t stop there. Risk, yes, risk being vulnerable enough to tell someone that’s trustworthy what the “it” is. Ask for help, learn, grow, heal, and re-engage with enjoying the whole of your life. L’chaim!

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?

 

 

 

Does Validation Matter?

Validation: Why it matters.

 

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

We have all experienced a situation where we have not validated a person’s beliefs or behaviors as we interact with them.  We also know what it feels like for someone to ignore our feelings, minimize our experiences, or change the subject of a conversation when the topic really matters. Validating our own feelings and those of other people is an important skill to have and to hone.    

What is validation?  Validation means “acknowledging that a person’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors have causes and are therefore understandable”.  

To validate someone means we are looking for the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them.

Why is it important?  Well, it shows that we are listening to the other person and that we are trying to understand them.  It helps to strengthen our relationships because we can avoid a power struggle over who is right by validating the other person.  When we don’t validate others, it hurts.

How do we do it?  Pay attention to what the other person is saying.  Actively listen and reflect back to them what they are saying, without judging them!  We have to use our observation skills and we have to be pay attention to the conversation.  It is important to notice the little things, how is the person standing, are their arms crossed, is their face red, do they look like they are getting ready to cry?  All of these clues help us in conversation.  

We need to notice how a person is acting, listen to what a person says, and respond according to what we see and hear to help create and improve connection in relationships.

What’s the impact?  Like I said, validation helps to create connection. Validation challenges us to be present in conversation. We have to be listen to what the other person is saying in order to respond in a way that helps a person to feel understood. Validation can de-escalate a situation because you’ve avoided the fight and acknowledged the other person’s experience.  

Give it a shot!  

 

 

 

 

Information adapted from DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents, Rathus, Jill H., and Alec L. Miller. “Validation.” DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents. New York: Guilford, 2015. Print.

Reset Safe Connections Through Play Therapy

by: Isaac Knopp, PLPC

Reset Safe Connections Through Play Therapy

Big Figures, Small Worlds:

A big strong horse was the toy that Nate chose to play with in the sandbox. To anyone else this toy was just a small, plastic animal you might find at pretty much any toy store. But to Nate, who took his toy and plunged it beneath the sand and then looked up at me with wide and terrified eyes, it was more than a horse. Over the course of our time working together Nate was processing the sudden death of his dad. He always chose the horse, because to him, his dad was big and strong just like that horse.

Nate’s play was his way of telling me what he was wrestling with. Our kids have a different way of dealing with stress than we adults do. Play is a child’s way of grappling with the forces of the world and life that they cannot yet grasp. When our children encounter something too big, scary or difficult to grasp it gets incorporated directly into their play. Play is the essential and natural way a child resets their safe connections to others, self, and the world especially after they feel like their safe connections have been lost or threatened.

At times children will be classified as struggling with ADHD or having childhood anxiety, outbursts of anger, difficulty controlling emotions, self-regulating, and defiant behaviors. When in reality these classifications are simply symptoms of the child experiencing frustration in resetting their safe connections.

How do I give my child what he or she needs to succeed? As parents, our first thought is usually education, which is very important. However, often giving children what they need relationally can be a challenge because we feel ill equipped to meet them where they are. Learning how to connect with your child through play can give your child a big boost in self-image and development.

Connect Through Play:
  • Curiosity: Asking your child to explain what something means to them can be a window into their world.
  • Acceptance: Learning how to notice behaviors or play that seems bizarre yet may make total sense in their world of trying to reset their connections.
  • Empathy: Curiosity and acceptance create a platform for you to see the child’s expression of what they are really wresting with.
  • Trust: Once connections get established you will notice it is much easier for your child to rely on themselves as well as others. It will also be easier for you to trust that your child is doing important developmental work all the time.

In one of my last sessions with Nate, he walked up to the toy shelf to gaze at all the toys. His little hands brushed over that big strong horse, he then moved over to a red firetruck. He said, “I don’t need to play with the horse today”, instead he reached up and took hold of the truck. Although the horse was small it was big in Nate’s world. Through play, Nate was able to successful reestablish his safe connections.