Category Archives: Uncategorized

Getting Started with Mindfulness

Stories about mindfulness are all over the internet and in printed media.  Every day, it seems there are reports on new studies that continue increasing the known or likely benefits of a regular mindfulness practice.  The graphic below provides a nice visual representation of many facts about mindfulness in a clear and simple format.

I teach clients to use simple tools such as breath awareness to begin increasing their ability to track what is happening with their body and to focus attention on an object of their own choosing. This is an especially important skill to begin with when working with a history of trauma.

It’s very simple to integrate basic mindfulness practices into your everyday life.   To help you on your way, I’ve recorded a simple breath awareness practice that you are welcome to try out.  If you utilize it daily,  I am confident that you will quickly begin to notice benefits such as a calmer mind, fewer sensations of stress, and greater ability to respond rather than react.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Present Value

As an undergraduate, I majored in economics. I’ll never forget sitting in my first lecture class, listening to the professor discuss “present value.” I had no idea what he was talking about. After class, I went home and studied my textbook until I understood that “present value” means the amount you are willing to pay today for some amount of money in the future. The present value is less than the future value due to the ability of money to earn interest over time. It is possible to draw a parallel to the concept of the “present value” of therapy. Although it is not as easy to measure mathematically, it is important to consider the “interest” your present investment in therapy will earn over time, in terms of life satisfaction and relief from distress. What is the present value of enjoying one’s life with greater ease, both now and in the future?

Does Money Buy Happiness?

Christopher J. Boyce and Alex M. Wood, two researchers in psychology, conducted a review of studies published in law, economic, psychology, and medical journals, in order to compare the effect on reducing psychological distress of mental health treatment versus monetary compensation. Specifically, they were interested in whether or not courts should award money to victims of crime, accidents, and so forth, vs. providing psychological treatment. They concluded that mental health treatment could be at least 32 times more effective at relieving psychological distress than financial compensation. Even four months of psychotherapy has been correlated with measurable reduction in symptoms. Granted, this conclusion is not based on the results of a controlled experiment, however, it strongly suggests the value of a personal investment in psychotherapy. Emotional distress can contribute to physical health problems, disrupted relationships, addictions, and lost time from work, all of which directly translate into financial costs that can affect a person’s life for years to come.

You Have Choices

I am not minimizing the absolute expense of psychotherapy nor the sacrifices that might be made in order to participate in it.   Another concept I studied as an economics major was “opportunity cost.” “Opportunity cost” is a term for the tradeoff between two mutually exclusive alternatives. If you choose to pay for therapy, the opportunity cost is the benefit you would enjoy by spending that money on something else. Therapy can be included in your monthly budget, just like any other expense.  Often, there are budgeting decisions that can be made that defer non-essential purchases, or eliminate wasteful spending. Even saving $20 per week translates into over $1000 a year, which can pay for a significant number of therapy sessions.  In many cases, modifications to one’s spending habits can be made in ways that produce little actual deprivation. The decision to pay for therapy is indeed a choice, representing an investment in yourself, one that is potentially 32 times more effective at improving your life than the possessions that could have been purchased instead.  We have only one opportunity to live this particular life.  If you are unsatisfied with yours,  given this multiplier, the opportunity cost of NOT investing in therapy could arguably be unaffordable.

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Trauma 101

Trauma is a fact of everyday life. When I talk about trauma, I mean the effect of an external event on the internal workings of the nervous system. A person becomes traumatized when the capacity of their nervous system to cope with an experience is overwhelmed. A life event that might be traumatizing to one person might not have the same effect on another, for an number of reasons.

Differences in Individual Resiliency

Some people are more resilient than others. Individuals who have experienced early neglect, abuse, or other traumatizing experiences, tend to have less resiliency than people who have not. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study provides evidence that a history of adverse experiences in one’s early years is correlated with greater risk of disease, addiction, and early death. This makes sense, as children’s coping mechanisms are more easily overwhelmed than are those of adults.

The Freeze Response

Any experience can be traumatizing if escape from the situation is not possible. Our bodies will attempt to meet a threat through either fighting or fleeing. If these responses are not successful, our nervous system has a “circuit breaker” known as the freeze response, which is involuntary (it happens without conscious decision). The freeze response is not “bad,” in fact, it can assure our survival when all other strategies have failed. However, the freeze response can become “stuck,” particularly if it is associated with something frightening. The more terrifying the situation that led to freeze, the longer and more intensely it might become stuck.

How Do We “Remember”?

When we have an experience that is traumatizing, the part of our brain that helps us make conscious (explicit) memories goes offline due to the flood of stress hormones that is released. However, our bodies still remember the experience through a type of memory called “implicit” memory, which consists of body sensations, body movements, emotions, and perceptions. These kinds of memories may have no words associated with them, and are not encoded as being something that happened in the past. Therefore, when they are recalled, they can be experienced as happening in the present moment, which is confusing and frightening for the person having them.

You Can’t Just Talk Your Way Out of It

Somatic Experiencing techniques help people heal from trauma by helping to make sense out of these “implicit” memories, and increasing the ability to distinguish what is happening in the present environment from things that happened in the past. Please visit my website to learn more about Somatic Experiencing as well as how I use these techniques in my work with clients.

Parenting

The Hardest Job in the World

As a parent, I know just how hard the job is. After the birth of my first child, I decided I needed some support in navigating this new and challenging journey! I was lucky enough to find a skilled and caring therapist. The experience was so life-changing that I decided to become a therapist so that I could accompany other people on the same path of personal healing and growth. If you are a parent, I care deeply about helping you and your family.

I believe that nearly all parents want the best for their children, and that they are doing the best they can to provide it. Even if you’ve had experience with other people’s children, you may be surprised by how different your interactions are with your own kids. Babies and children don’t always behave the way the books say they will, nor how the rest of your family thinks they should. Everyone has an opinion, and they don’t always agree. This can lead to self-doubt, frustration, and even more stress than already comes with the responsibility of caring for another life 24/7 for many years. Enjoying your children—the reason you had them in the first place—may seem like a distant and fading hope. My work with parents addresses three main factors that support positive parenting and a satisfying family life.

Sorting Out Your Past

The first way in which I support parents is to help them make sense of their own histories. Scientific research suggests that parents who have created a meaningful story out of their own experiences—even if they had difficult or abusive childhoods—have a greater likelihood of raising children who are secure, resilient, and well-regulated. Therapy is by its nature intended to help with this process.

Keeping Your Head About You

Secondly, I work with parents to increase their own physiological self-regulation. I do this using the combination of traditional talk therapy, and Somatic Experiencing techniques, which I have outlined on my main website. The stress and fatigue that often accompanies parenting can leave you vulnerable to emotional overwhelm. At such times, uncontrolled reactions of anger, anxiety, or sadness may intrude on your ability to parent from a loving place. These responses are greatly influenced by our “downstairs” brain, which takes over in times of increased stress. By increasing self-regulation, the likelihood is increased that you will be able to have full access to the “upstairs” portion of your brain, where functions such as planning, response flexibility, empathy, and patience are located. When you are better able to stay calm and in control of your reactions, you are more likely to parent in the way that feels good to you, and contributes to calmer, more cooperative behavior in your children. More than once, my clients have remarked that when they feel better regulated, they notice that other family members are calmer, and that this occurs without any conscious effort on their part.

In Parenting, Ignorance is NOT Bliss

The third aspect of my approach with parents is to provide information about child development and suggestions regarding specific parenting interventions that might be helpful. Most of us did not receive any formal education in child development or parenting. I have years of experience—as a parent, and as a child, adolescent, and family therapist—that I use to help you to feel more confident in your role as a father, mother, or caregiver. Except in very rare circumstances, I will not tell you what to do, because I believe that you will know what works best for you and your family, given the right kind of information and support.

Here’s to You

I believe that parenting is the hardest, most important, and most rewarding job in the world. I welcome your inquiry regarding a complimentary 20-minute telephone consultation to discuss the possibility of working together.  I hope to have the opportunity to help you and your family achieve more harmony, enjoyment, and love.

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Accumulated Stress – What is it?

What is meant by “accumulated stress”? One way to think of it is as the loss of resiliency in a person’s capacity to respond to life challenges. Stress, when presented in manageable doses, and in situations where one can mobilize an effective response, is an opportunity for developing increased knowledge, competency, and joy. Think about learning to ride a bike. There is stress involved in learning to balance, pedal, and steer, all at the same time. When the stress is met successfully, and the body gets to do what it wants to do, you experience the exhilaration that comes along with a new-found sense of freedom.

Loss of “flow” in our nervous systems

On the other hand, modern life can hand us many experiences that don’t allow our bodies to complete a response in the way for which they were designed. Competing demands of work, family, relationships, parenting, household maintenance, and so forth, require mobilization of the sympathetic branch of the nervous system. This is the same branch that mobilizes our flight/fight responses in response to a perception of threat, whether real or imagined. It was never designed to be switched “on” all the time. However, the demands of life, the way many people live it now, lead to the constant “override” of the parasympathetic response. Rest, play, sleep fall by the way side. Our nervous systems become tuned to a higher and higher frequency of sympathetic arousal, which never really disengages, unless we fall into collapse. Our nervous systems are designed to be able to respond with a significant flow, with sufficient range, between sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. Yet, over time, we lose this range of frequency, becoming stuck “on” or “off,” or in a pattern of disorganized, abrupt shifting between the two.

Think of a guitar string. When it is tuned to the right pitch, it is capable of resonating in a musical way that delights. If it is tuned too tightly, it will vibrate at an unpleasantly “sharp” frequency. Tighten it even more, and it may finally “give up” and break, and be incapable of making any sound at all.

In people, this loss of resiliency in the nervous system results in symptoms such as inability to sleep–or sleep restfully–irritability, anxiety, panic, digestive disorders, chronic pain, depression, and so on. When this happens, we have access to fewer and fewer behavioral, emotional, and cognitive choices. Our behavior seems out of sync with the situation at hand. We snap at a loved one over a minor irritation, rather than expressing our feelings gently. We have trouble focusing on important tasks because our anxiety level is too high. We push and push ourselves to exhaustion just so we’ll be able to sleep. We fall into collapse and can’t mobilize any coping strategies at all. We turn to drugs, alcohol, and medications to manage our bodies.

 Restoring Flow

My approach, which includes a combination of talk therapy and Somatic Experiencing techniques, is designed to help educate you about your body, teach you to “read” its signals, notice your activation, and support you to allow for deactivation. Ultimately, talking things through allows you to explore your emotions and thoughts, make sense of what’s happening, explore different responses, and make a plan for how to maintain a healthier balance in order to nourish body, mind, and soul.

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Accumulated Stress

Accumulated stress is a significant and growing problem for people today.  Humans, like other mammals, are physiologically designed to mobilize a stress response in order to deal with an approaching threat, or to hunt food for survival.  The stress response is intended to be a short-term (3 minutes or so) response to an specific situation, after which energy that has been mobilized but not needed should be discharged out of the nervous system.

The Stress Response in Modern Life

For humans, there are often two problems with the completion of this response.  The first is that we inhibit ourselves due to social norms and beliefs.  If you have ever started shaking after a stressful event, but tried to stop yourself out of self-consciousness, then you will understand what this means.  Emergency personnel will often administer drugs to stop shaking or trembling.  The outcome is that the energy that has been mobilized but not discharged will remain locked in the nervous system.

The second challenge for human beings is that we become conditioned to mobilize the stress response in reaction to memories, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, or when we THINK we are about to be stressed.   It is much more likely for a modern human to be stressed by these factors than because he or she is being chased by a lion.  When the stress response is mobilized in response to psychological stressors, the same physiological responses occur, but generally cannot lead to completion, because we can’t physically outrun or fight back against an unreasonable boss, an overdue bill payment, a broken toilet, or a child failing a class. To paraphrase Robert Sapolsky, a leading researcher of the stress response, “try to explain a thirty-year mortgage to a hippo, and it will have no idea what you are talking about.”  Hippos, and other animals in the wild, do not experience accumulated stress.  For humans, repeatedly turning on the stress response when it’s not needed leads to chronic wear and tear on the brain and the body.

Too Much of a Good Thing

As accumulated stress builds in the nervous system, it becomes a self-fulfilling feedback loop.  The stress response increases the size of the amygdala, a part of our brain that senses danger and generates a fear/anxiety response.  The more we initiate the stress response, the more likely we are to initiate it in the future.  The stress response becomes activated more and more by conditioned cues.  Many people have heard about Pavlov’s experiments with dogs.  After repeatedly ringing a bell while at the same time offering food to the dog, Pavlov found that the dog would eventually begin salivating just by hearing the bell ring, even if food was not present.  As humans, we can start to experience debilitating anxiety from something as simple as the alarm going off in the morning.  We begin to perceive safe people and situations as potentially dangerous.  On the other hand, and equally as problematic, we can mentally block out our awareness of the stress response, even when it is actually needed to respond to threat.  We begin to have difficulty determining who is a safe person to be with, and who is not.

We Can Do Something About It

Dr. Sapolsky and other researchers are working on sophisticated approaches to reducing the physiological effects of stress through gene therapy and other methods.  These treatments may be years and years away.  Is there anything we can do about accumulated stress right now?  Yes!  My approach incorporates methods that address stress in both a “top-down” and “bottom-up” way.  Somatic Experiencing ® is a holistic, integrative form of therapy that utilizes techniques common to well-known therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness, and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), in combination with exercises that increase awareness of and tolerance for physical sensation.  This can be an effective way to shift ingrained patterns of response in a direction that creates less stress on the body, and thus more well-being.  While it is not a medical treatment that directly treats physical ailments, it does help to decrease the conditioned associations that amplify the stress response.  The goal is for you to internally experience less stress, experience it less often, and also have a less intense response to external stressors.  Additionally, I will work with you to develop more coping skills to respond to those stressors more effectively.

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