Trauma

Build Better Relationships (Part II)

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The Cornerstone of Emotional Control

One-year-old children do not control how they express their feelings. These little emotional volcanoes erupt in crying, tantrums, screaming and making a fuss whenever the mood strikes.

But so what. People love one-year-old children. They are cute, innocent, and engaging. As for the outbursts, well, they are only one year old after all. We make allowances.

By contrast, people do not love to be around adults who act like one-year-old children. Most of us do not look at these adults and think they are cute, innocent, or engaging. We cannot reason away their behavior by thinking “They are so young, they haven’t learned how to behave yet.”

Adults who lack the skill, or the desire, to control how they express strong emotions will find it difficult to build close, mature, and rewarding relationships. Those sort of relationships require emotional control.

In Part 1 of this two part series we briefly looked at why emotional control is important for healthy relationships to grow and flourish.

The take away from that article was “Feelings, when given control of behavior, become tyrants. Feelings may lead you to avoid those things you should do. Those things that would be good for you, and are good for others around you.”

Feelings may also lead you to do those things you should not do, which can quickly build a memory chest of regret and grief.

The key to making the most of emotion, of creating a life where emotions enrich your experiences rather than control your experiences, is to learn how best to respond to your feelings. That is, to master your feelings so they do not lead you to behave in ways that are destructive.”  

This observation begs the following question: “How does someone go about gaining this sort of control over emotions?” Glad you asked.  Below I have listed some simple, common sense steps to get you started.

One caution, however, before we start discussing these steps. The things I recommend doing are not complicated, but they do require consistent effort. If you are willing to put in the time and the work, you will eventually build crazy Jedi Master like control over your feelings (or maybe just semi Jedi like control that is still pretty shock and awe-inspiring).

If you are not willing to put in the time, the effort, and make this a priority, you’re better off not starting down this road. Although gaining better control over your emotions is not rocket science, it is hard work. If you are not willing to do that work, save yourself some frustration.

But, if you are ready to put in the work, keep focused, be persistent, and change your life for the better, that’s terrific! In that case let’s get moving, there’s no time to lose.

Five Skills For Gaining Control Over Emotions

When we think about increasing control over emotions it is helpful to divide this part of life into two realms. The first realm is what occurs in the heat of the moment. When you have just been insulted, disappointed, provoked, frustrated, embarrassed, and so forth. How can you quickly assert control over your emotions in those instances so as to respond in a constructive way. These are ‘in the moment’ skills.

A second set of skills we will look at take aim at lowering the overall stress in your life so that when highly charged situations arise you find it easier to respond effectively. Let’s call these ‘stress reduction skills’ because… well, because that’s precisely what they do.

Each skill will be listed and briefly explained. A short description of the rationale then follows.

SKILLS FOR BEING IN THE MOMENT

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SKILL  Put everything on hold. When a provocative encounter comes up step away. Don’t continue to engage in conversation at that moment. Tell the other person that you would like to discuss that topic with him or her at a later time, but not now.

You don’t need a rationale. You don’t need to explain (unless the other person is your spouse or close friend). This is one of the best ways to avoid having emotions hijack your interactions. Just say no.

RATIONALE Putting a discussion on hold allows you to pick a better time to confront the issue. A time that is more favorable to maintaining good emotional control. This also gives you time to consider the other person’s perspective, and the best way to respond.  

SKILL   Gain some perspective. Think of the things that cause your emotions to rise. What remarks, or behaviors, by others cause you to be hurt, angry or embarrassed?  Do these interactions really seem worth the energy, and potential conflict, that occurs when you respond with high emotion? Is reacting this way really worth the cost? Are you positive the other person meant to be hurtful, cutting, dismissive?

Not convinced? OK, think of it this way: imagine you are leaving for a two-year journey abroad where there will be no ability to communicate with others (including close friends and relatives). Now imagine that a friend, or relative, just did something to upset you. When you arrive at your destination, no longer able to communicate with anyone in your old life, would you be glad that you had expressed your anger, hurt, resentment?

If the answer is “No, I would not respond with an angry or biting response”, then don’t do it.

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RATIONALE Gaining perspective helps pull us back from being caught up in the “emotional vortex of the moment.” During these brief periods of time your lizard brain begins to take over – which means you are more likely to make decisions that an Iguana would find pleasing.

The problem is, you’re not an Iguana, and when the lizard brain settles down and sweet reason resumes in its place, regret is likely to follow.

Bottom line, work hard to gain perspective. This goes a long way toward helping you think rationally even when emotions begin to surge. With sweet reason guiding your responses, better decisions will be made (i.e., you will overcome the lizard brain).

SKILL   Channel your inner Mr. Miyagi (pop culture reference alert… see also Karate Kid). That is, muster all the will power available and respond in ways that are guided by your higher principles.

Some people suffer from the mistaken idea that they have no control over their will power. They will say “I just can’t help myself from behaving this way.”

What this usually means (when any of us use this explanation) is that the effort it took to employ will power was more than we wanted to expend at that time. For example, think of driving home from work when suddenly you slam on the brakes because someone cut into your lane. Everything goes from your car seat to the floor. Your heart is racing. It would feel good, and right, to lean out the window and scream. Yelling would be a relief. If a couple of well-chosen curse words were added the relief might be even greater.

The force of willpower, however, is pushing back against this urge. “Stay calm. Focus on the traffic. Be the master of your feelings.”

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None of that feels very appealing at the moment. That way of responding does not offer immediate relief from the tension. And this is the point when we make a decision: do we shoulder the cost of exercising willpower, or decide it is not worth the price extracted (i.e., the price of living with the intense anger we experience at that moment).

The key point here is that it is a decision that each of us makes. Something that is under our control.

I remember working with a young man in his 20s who lived at home with his mother. Let’s call him Lester (not his real name). He would demand that his mum serve him meals in his room, clean up after him, do the shopping, and wash his clothes. When she failed to meet his expectations he would scream at her with profanity laced criticisms.

Lester said he would like to change his behavior but, to be honest, it was impossible. “I’ve tried. Gave it my best shot.” he said to me, looking pained at the memory of his failed yet herculean efforts.

“There are some things in life that just are not under my control. Wish they were… but they’re not. Once my mom sets me off, I lose it. There is nothing I can do.”

A short time after Lester and I had that conversation his mother came in and recounted the following. One of the mother’s friends had dropped by unexpectedly. Lester was unaware of the friend’s presence in the house when he called out from his bedroom that he wanted lunch to be ready within ten minutes. His mother, in the living room with her guest, called back that she was busy and would make lunch later.

Lester was furious. How dare his mother delay lunch. Without leaving his bedroom he began to yell out his typical litany of profanities. Not receiving a response from his mother he decided to march out of his room and give her a proper dressing down. Loudly stomping into the living room Lester was suddenly brought up short when he saw that there was a guest in the home. Remarkably, in that instant all profanities stopped.

What’s more, Lester managed a painful smile, then said hello to the guest before scampering back to his bedroom. Later that evening he scolded his mother for not informing him that a guest was in the house. “If I had known I would never have spoken that way. It’s so embarrassing, why didn’t you tell me?”

Clearly, Lester was able to choose how he would express his feelings of anger. The idea that he had tried to peddle earlier regarding this being outside of his control was an excuse for not doing the hard work of using self-control. Lester needed to channel his inner Mr. Miyagi (he also needed to be shown the front door, but that is a topic for another day).

Had Lester been interested in learning self control I would have given him the following advice. The key to strengthening will power is to pick one or two areas of life where you think it would be easy to assert more self-control. Set a couple of modest goals for doing so, practice some skills that could be of help, and begin to apply yourself.

Once those initial goals have been reached move forward by making new ones that are a little more difficult. When these goals have been conquered just repeat the steps until self control is well established in that part of your life.

Eventually you will select a new area of self control that you wish to strengthen. Follow the same steps as before. It’s OK to be slow and methodical. Just make sure you are always headed in the direction of progress.

An example might help make this more clear. Let’s say you, like Lester, have trouble with your temper. But you also have trouble with a sweet tooth. To pass by the donuts at church without snagging one or two is torture. The candy jar at the office is your BFF. A second helping of pie or cake each night has become a sacred tradition.

You figure that between your temper and your sweet tooth, it would be easier to gain control over cravings for all things sugar related. How does this help you exercise control over anger? By building self restraint in one area of life you indirectly enhance your ability to show restraint in other areas. Simple as that.

So once you had developed some pretty strong control over your sweet tooth cravings, you would move on to tackling some other area of self control. This might be your anger, but it might be something else. The key is to continue to build self control throughout your life so it become a part of your daily habits and mindset.

And just to be clear, at some point you will need to directly focus on controlling your anger.

RATIONALE  There is a Mr. Miyagi within each one of us. OK, that sounds a little odd. Bad metaphor. Let me rephrase.

There is a grown up side to each of us. Let that grown up side emerge and take control of your responses. This usually requires that we put injured pride to the side (i.e., “My spouse said something that hurt my feelings so now I’m going to hurt him/her back… but even worse”).

It may also require that we put resentments, insecurities, and selfish ambition in the ‘time out room.’ Fine.

The main thing is to focus your full effort on exerting self-control when you begin to feel emotions breaking free from your ability to restrain their expression. Many people can maintain control - but lack the desire. Feed the desire and you will strengthen your control.

PREPARATION SKILLS

SKILL    Reduce the overall stress in your life. As much as possible you should remove stressful situations, overly demanding people, and unrealistic expectations from your life. All of these build stress, reducing your ability to maintain emotional control.

Likewise, meditation, exercise, yoga, and hobbies may also reduce your stress. But many of us think of these things as luxuries. Indulgences. Consequently, they are low on our list of priorities. Because of this, these stress reduction approaches are often ignored.

Don’t make that mistake. Swim against the tide. Schedule one or more of these activities into your week. You’ll be glad you did.

RATIONALE   Activities that allow you to feel relaxed and at peace have a ripple effect. The benefits do not stop the moment you roll up your yoga mat, or put away the golf clubs. The psychological and neurological changes that occur while being engaged in these activities continue to be felt later in the day as well.

The islands of calm created by activities like meditation, exercise, etc., allow us to restore depleted psychological resources. We recharge our energy, and return to face life’s challenges with a greater sense of equilibrium and confidence. Then, when emotionally charged interactions arise with others, it is becomes easier to respond in ways that are effective.

Stress reduction skills

This is similar to walking a tightrope. Difficult under the best of circumstances. But attempting it while carrying a squirming chimp on your shoulders and luggage tucked under each arm gets even dicier. Vegas odds makers grimace and clutch their chest. The first gust of wind that comes your way means the walk is over. Gravity wins.

If, however, you were to ditch the luggage, and set aside the annoying chimp, your odds suddenly look a whole lot better. Without these impediments, it is much easier to deal with that gust of wind when it rushes at you.

So dump the stress. Find ways to set it aside. You’ll find it much easier to gain control over those intense feelings that give you grief.  

SKILL   Identify situations and people that trigger strong emotions in you.

RATIONALE  This allows you to avoid encountering those situations/people that give rise to pitched emotions. Not fully perhaps, but at least enough to reduce the frequency of such encounters. That is a huge gain.

It is obvious, however, that some stressful situations and people cannot be avoided. In fact, more importantly they should not be avoided. What then?

Gaining emotional control

The answer is that because you have identified these “triggers” ahead of time, you can clearly anticipate what response you would like to have in those situations. Knowing how you would like to respond will allow you to mentally rehearse that desired reaction. In other words, it allows you to prepare.

Preparation gives you an advantage. It puts the odds of a good outcome in your favor. Don’t ignore this step.

Conclusion

Emotional control brings added richness to life, and opens doors to deeper longer lasting relationships

There is a difference between having emotional control and being emotionally repressed. The person with control still experiences strong emotions, but he or she is not overwhelmed by their feelings. Neither anger, jealousy, sadness, elation, nor joy results in a loss of self-control.

This is the sort of person who, when faced with strong emotion, is still able to express him/herself in constructive ways. At times that response might express supreme patience, at other times it might exude icy cold assertiveness. In any case, it will be controlled and harnessed to reason and character.

The repressed individual, on the other hand, simply stuffs emotions so deeply into the recesses of the psyche that he, or she, fails to experience strong feelings. This way of gaining emotional control is detrimental to relationships.

It also fails to work. Let me emphasize, it fails much more often than it succeeds. Repressing emotions is about as effective as a Ford Edsel. The floodgates of repressed emotions have a way of unexpectedly opening. Emotions that have for ages been held underground suddenly surge to the surface like a geyser. Similar to Old Faithful, this makes quite a spectacle – one that is usually followed by regret.

By contrast, the sort of mature self-control we have looked at does not result in these sudden emotional eruptions. What’s more, with persistence and practice anyone is capable of gaining better control of this part of their life.

It may be that for some people a coach (i.e., therapist) will be helpful. Terrific, go for it. But whether you take that route, or prefer to go it alone, don’t wait another day to get started. Less stress and more rewarding relationships are right around the corner.

Four Ways To Make Next Year A Great Year

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Reach Your Goals/Change Your Life

It’s difficult to believe that 2018 is coming to a close. I’ll bet you remember when the year was still fresh. A clean slate to write upon. Yet now the year is quickly running to the finish line. Another chapter of life written.

Many of us use this time to reflect on memories of what went well, the successes we’ve had, times with family and friends, and the goals we’ve achieved.

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On the other hand, many of us also look at what we would like to have done differently. This can be a little painful. It might even cause some anxiety to look at those goals that were not reached. Things we promised ourselves we would finally complete, but once again somehow never got around to doing. (Spoiler alert… I’m going to show you how to move those painful items to the “Been there, done that” column of life).

All of this brings us to the topic of New Year’s resolutions.

With a new year stretched out before us, it’s natural to want to set ambitious goals. Important and personally meaningful goals. Often, without too much thought, we’ll latch onto a couple of things we would like to change in our life and then make a New Year resolution.

Sadly, by the middle of the year, most of us have broken these resolutions. I feel your pain. 

Yep, by the time the weather turns warm, most of us have tossed aside our New Year resolutions. Dumped them on the side of the road that leads to summer. Tossed them out the window as if they were some regrettable impulse buy made at the Dollar Tree store. (True confession, I’ve never regretted a Dollar Tree purchase – but that’s not the issue).

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Have you found yourself in that situation? The odds are you have – like most of us. Welcome to the club. But take a moment now to consider what might have happened if you had succeeded in fulfilling one or two of those resolutions? Better yet, what if you had been successful in keeping your resolutions over each of the past five years?

How might your life be different? In what ways could it be better? In what ways might you have become a better version of yourself? Really give that some thought.

Resolutions that are successful, even small resolutions, have the potential to dramatically change one’s life.

I recall the story of a woman in her 40’s who was depressed, overweight, socially isolated and a chain smoker. On a trip overseas, in a remote location, she found herself unable to buy cigarettes. For a full week she would be without her smokes.

“Why doesn’t Trip Advisor warn about such things!” she screamed into her pillow (OK, I added that, not sure the whole screaming into the pillow was part of her story).  

Bottom line, the woman was not pleased. Nicotine withdrawal is a bear.

But by the end of the week she had an insight. Despite her numerous attempts to stop smoking throughout the previous ten years, she had never gone a full week without a cigarette. Now that she had a full week of being clean, she wondered if she could extend that streak for one more day.

It wasn’t easy, but she stayed clean another day. Then another, and another, and another. By this point her confidence had soared, as had her determination to stay ‘nicotine sober.’

Having kicked cigarettes out of her life, she physically felt much better. Her sleep had improved. Her thinking was clearer. She began to savor the subtle flavors of food that had been dulled by a two pack a day habit.

So she decided to start exercising. Every morning began with a brisk walk. It wasn’t long before she was waking earlier and walking three miles a day. Then jogging, and then running.

Eventually she joined a running group. The other runners were warm and welcoming. Friendships formed.

Her friends encouraged her to sign up for a half marathon. They would run as a group. To prepare for the challenge she changed her eating habits. Due to all the running and healthier eating she began to lose weight.

All of these changes took place within two years of her having stopped smoking. A small change in her life had unforeseen consequences. It altered her outlook, and pushed her in a new direction.

Two years previously she had been unhappy, smoking two packs a day, in poor health, and had almost no real friends. Now she was the picture of health, supported by friends, and optimistic about the future.

The right changes, even small ones, can shift our lives in dramatically new directions. These changes are similar to the slight push on the tiller of a boat. This causes the rudder to move ever so slightly one way or another, changing course of direction just a few degrees.

What sort of difference do these small changes make? Well, if you were sailing north from the southern Pacific Ocean it would make the difference between making landfall on the coast of Russia, versus the United States.

New Year resolutions that are well chosen can have a similar impact on your life, drastically altering where you find yourself in the coming years.

Resolutions Are Goals

Resolutions are simply goals. And goals that we stick to have tremendous power because they change life’s trajectory. They have the punch to rekindle old passions. To unveil forgotten potential, and spark a cascade of positive change.

We all need goals. Better yet, we need good goals. Those that lead us to form habits which, having become second nature, move our life forward even when we are not consciously striving to do so.

One example of such a habit is that of getting consistently getting a good night’s sleep. Nail this habit and you will see a change in improved energy, a brighter mood, and a clearer mind. Or the habit of reading leads us to expand our knowledge and view the world with a more informed perspective.

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What we want to avoid are resolutions, or goals, that wither and die. These lead to a sense of frustration. Of being stuck. Powerless to change our own destiny.

Better to not make any New Year resolutions than to perpetually fail at keeping them. I know, sounds harsh. But there is no upside to going through an end of year ritual that teach us to expect failure.

The ‘take home’ message? Take aim at forming resolutions that you are willing to fully commit to fulfilling. Chose resolutions, no matter how small, that will enrich your life in some way.

When choosing a resolution think of a ‘why’ that makes it worth sacrificing time and energy to complete. The ‘why’ boils down to how it improves your life, or the lives of the people you most deeply care for.

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How To Make Resolutions That Stick  

So how do you stick to a New Year’s resolution?  

By building a strategy that supports your success at reaching the goal you have set. 

What’s that again? Let me elaborate.

Most resolutions are made with a great deal of sincerity, but very little detailed planning. To increase the odds of success, you need even more planning than sincerity. If a goal is not worth the time and effort needed to make a detailed plan for succeeding, then it is unlikely to be worth the even bigger effort it takes to reach that goal.

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There are four simple steps you can follow that will make reaching any goal much more likely. Each step requires some earnest thought.

This ‘thinking through the details’ of how to reach your goal can be challenging. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, the rewards are great.

Let’s go over each step.

ONE            Select a realistic goal. For example, if you want to learn a new language in the coming year, your goal might be to memorize three hundred words of that language. With that vocabulary having been built up you might also aim to have 50 different sentences with which you are fluent by the end of the year.

That boils down to learning six words a week, and about four sentences a month. How much of your time would that require each week? Thirty minutes? An hour at the most?

Much more doable than the loftier goal of learning to speak a foreign language fluently by the end of the year (sorry Rosetta Stone, but let’s deal with how much spare time most people really have each day). Learning 300 words, and 50 sentences is a realistic goal, even for a very busy person like you.

If you continued with that goal for several more years you would have at your command a vocabulary of well over a thousand words, and hundreds of sentences. That’s what they call pretty impressive in French  (assez impressionnant), German (ziemlich beeindruckend), or Japanese (Kanari inshō-teki). 

TWO           Write down each step that you must take in order to succeed. Using the same example, we could easily identify several steps: buy a book, or a DVD language set, or enroll in an online course. Another step would be to set aside the time to study each day. A third step would be to identify the words you wished to learn, put them on a list and determine what words will be learned each week. Another step would be to decide how to reinforce the learning once you’ve committed a word to memory (e.g., flash cards that would be reviewed once weekly). You get the idea.

It’s important to be specific with your plan. Likewise, it is important to be committed to the plan.

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For instance, if you planned to spend ten minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening reviewing the vocabulary words, you would mark that in your calendar. 

It would need to be treated as an important appointment with yourself. Keeping that appointment should be a priority.

Lastly, I need to emphasize that staying with your new routine will be difficult at first. But once you get started, and you’ve stayed with it for two or three months, it becomes second nature. Like brushing your teeth, just part of your routine.

THREE       Find a partner (if possible) to join you in reaching this goal. This will make it more fun, and you’ll have someone to encourage you, and help keep you on track.

FOUR         Reward yourself along the way. As you make progress toward reaching your goal, stop to celebrate. For the example about learning a language, it would be good to celebrate after every 50 words are mastered. That’s a milestone! Time for a pat on the back and a double scoop of ice cream!

Are there any other ways you can think of to make resolutions that stick? It’s worth giving some thought – it just might be the thing that sends your life in an entirely new and more rewarding direction.

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Lessons Learned From The Other Side Of The Couch

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Facing Heartache & Pursuing Happiness

I’ve been a therapist for many years now. Over the course of those years people of various backgrounds, struggling with a variety of different challenges, have sat across from me.

Some have been young, others old. Some were full-time homemakers, others were skilled tradesmen, students, or unemployed. Still others were involved in successful practices involving medicine, the law, or business.

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A number of these individuals had grown up in wonderfully supportive homes, while others had struggled growing up in abusive, chaotic and horribly dysfunctional families.

Pretty early on in my career I began to notice that regardless of one’s history, or present circumstances, the people who succeeded in building a happy and full life had certain traits in common. For some people, these traits, or characteristics, seem to have developed easily. Perhaps they were winners in the genetic lottery. For most, however, the traits that helped them weather life’s storms, and create happier lives, appeared to be hard won.

Today I want to look at just one of these traits. Of all the qualities that add to one’s ability to build a full and happy life, this one may be the most difficult to build. But not impossible. Far from it. With persistence, and continued practice, this trait will take root in one’s character, and a richer life will be crafted as a result.

Responsibility   

Assuming responsibility for one’s happiness is one of the top key traits I’ve seen in those who appear most fulfilled in life. This is true whether the person is currently struggling with grief, depression, anxiety or some other distress. It is not that these people don’t recognize the severity of the hardships that bear down on them: they do not view life through rose colored glasses. Very much the opposite. They are realists to the core.

Instead of glossing over the heartaches of life, they squarely acknowledge the pain of each setback. Having down so, however, they also take full responsibility for the task of then moving forward and building a happy life as best as their abilities will allow.

A more natural reaction to have in the face of great heartache, and one that many of us may have indulged in on occasion, is to exclaim “If only XYZ were different, then I could be happy.”

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This way of thinking is attractive because it often contains at least a kernel of truth. If your boss had been fair, you really would have received that promotion, and that truly would have made life much better. If that other driver had not run the red light you would not have been injured, and would not now be facing months of physical therapy. If only….

It’s interesting to note, however, that those who manage to build happy lives despite these sort of hardships do not spend a lot of time dwelling on the “If only” scenarios of life. Sure, they recognize when life has dealt them a harsh challenge. They might momentarily become sad, grief stricken or angry. But this is does not become an entrenched state of mind. They find no permanent comfort in viewing life from that perspective. It is not a mental state where they set up camp.

More often than not, when they do get dragged into those mental marsh lands, they find ways to dig themselves out. They continue to look for paths to higher ground where they can stand on the firmer road of hope, friendship, and a life of shared purpose.  

What fuels these men and women, in part, is a sober acceptance of the reality that only one person can ultimately change their life. Only one person has responsibility for their happiness. That one person, of course, is them self.

An example of this approach to life may help drive the point home. Some years ago I had been talking to a friend, Chris, at dinner when the conversation turned to the topic of his father. Chris mentioned that his dad (let’s call him Jack) had a difficult childhood. As a teen growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s, Jack unexpectedly found himself in a compromising situation. Sizing he situation up, he quickly decided that leaving the state in search of friendly environs would redound to his great advantage. Jack had heard that California was the land of opportunity, and so a young man in his teens he struck out on his own and headed off to the Golden State.

After arriving in California he bounced around from job to job, even spending some time as a professional boxer. Eventually, however, he decided that learning a trade was the way to carve out a more secure financial future. Jack figured that becoming an electrician would be a good idea: it provided a decent income, and work would always be plentiful for someone with that skill set.

Getting an electrician license required several years of apprenticeship. The rewards of being in that trade would not come easily. Even so, Jack knew that the payoff would be worth the price and apprenticed himself to a local electrician.

After several years of working long hours for very little money, Jack went to the government office that issued electrician licenses. After patiently waiting in line, he stepped up to the licensure desk where a neatly dressed woman sat. “Good morning mam. I’m here to apply for my electrician’s license.”

The woman looked puzzled and remained quiet for a moment before saying “You can’t get an electricians license.” Jack thought she had misunderstood. “I’ve got all my documents right here. All the hours I’ve apprenticed. It’s all in order.” He politely placed his paperwork on the desk.

Without looking down at the documents the women calmly replied “It’s not a matter of how many hours you’ve apprenticed. That’s not it at all. We don’t issue electrician licenses to negroes.”

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Chris finished telling the story.  I thought for a moment, then commented about how the injustice of the situation would cause me to be both angry and bitter.

It seemed a reasonable sentiment. After all, without any just cause his father had wasted several years of his life, hours of labor, and the application of his skills pursuing a goal that was foreclosed by blatant bigotry. I started to elaborate but my protests were cut short. Chris leaned back in his chair and began laughing.

Smiling and shaking his head in disbelief he said “Well, you don’t know my father. He is one of the least bitter men I’ve ever known. Nope, if he was bitter he didn’t let it stick to him. Instead he just walked away and began to think about other trades he could pursue. Didn’t take him long to land on the idea of selling real estate… and he ended up doing extremely well. I mean really, really well. My dad wasn’t one to let others determine his happiness. He took charge of his own life.”

That story struck a note. Chris’ father had not justified the bigotry that foreclosed the possibility of being an electrician. But neither did he let it define him, consume his thoughts, curtail his pursuit of success, or dampen his happiness. He focused on what he could do to carve out a life that was meaningful, full, and satisfying. As a result, he was not only freed from bitter resentment, but emotionally unburdened so as to fully enjoy the success that his continued hard work and skills would eventually bring about.

Conclusion

Whether we are struggling with gross injustice, misfortune, illness, or the ramifications of our own poor choices, the final responsibility for a life well lived ultimately rests on our own shoulders.

It’s true that some of us face much tougher challenges than others. The disparity in the hardships we face can seem unfair. Even so, this does not alter the reality of how we secure a full and happy life: by accepting that no matter the challenges we face, it is up to each of us to build a full and happy life.

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Those that I’ve known who do this well would not claim that it is easy. Many of them have been faced with terrible losses and setbacks. Their lives marked, at times, by great heartache. But even so they push on, not letting themselves remain focused on the pain, but relentlessly searching for ways to drink in whatever joy they can find in life.

This does not erase the sorrows that invariably must be faced. But for those who adopt this approach, it affords a road that more often than not leads to a much brighter future.

When Does Medication Make Sense

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Depression, Anxiety, Medication & You

Depression and anxiety are two of the most common psychiatric concerns among adults, adolescents and children in the USA. The impact of depression and anxiety can be devastating.

Just looking at depression, research from the World Health Organization shows that it is the fourth leading cause of disability. In younger individuals the impact of depression has far reaching consequences. For example, depressed teens are much more likely to become pregnant than their non-depressed peers. Their peer relations are also negatively impacted, as is their ability to prepare for adulthood.

Depressed college students are 60% more likely to drop out of school than their non-depressed peers, and marriages where one spouse is depressed are more likely to end up in divorce.   

Not surprisingly, depression frequently has a profound economic impact. Annual household incomes where one spouse is depressed are significantly less than households that are free of depression.   

The list of problems associated with depression could fill the pages of a book, but I think the picture is clear, depression is a serious problem.

The case is the same when looking at the impact of anxiety (and severe emotional distress in general).  

These statistics paint an alarming picture – having anxiety or depression is not a matter of simply dealing with distressing emotions. Instead it is a matter of dealing with something that can turn your life inside out in a dozen different ways.

When you, or someone you love, has anxiety or depression, some serious decisions need to be made regarding treatment. Living with depression or anxiety for years, or worse, for a lifetime, is a horrible option. The cost is too high.

When faced with anxiety or depression, one needs to decide how to overcome the challenge it presents. Many people turn to psychotherapy as a proven means for bringing about positive change (as an aside, research shows that medication and psychotherapy in general are equally effective, but therapy produces longer lasting results, and medication provides faster results). 

At some point during therapy you are likely to discuss with your therapist the idea that medication could be a help. How can you wisely decide whether this is a road worth travelling down?

The Down Side of Antidepressants and Anxiolytics

When the topic comes up in conversations with those that I work with I find it helpful to focus on the risks versus benefits of medication. For most healthy individuals the risk attached to taking an antidepressant or anxiolytic (medication for anxiety) are minimal.

Even so, some people do experience one or more side effects. These may include nausea, blurred vision, drowsiness, diminished libido, dry mouth, upset stomach, insomnia, fatigue, and a several other symptoms. With anxiolytics there may be the risk of developing a dependency on the drug, and eventual abuse needs to be guarded against.

Of course, the specific side effects and probability of developing these symptoms, varies according to the specific medication. As a psychologist I don’t prescribe medication, which means that my clients need to see their personal physician, or a psychiatrist, to obtain medication and have follow up visits to monitor for side effects.

To summarize, the main cost of taking medication for anxiety or depression includes the possibility of developing one or more of the side effects just mentioned; the time/money required to see a physician, and; the need to follow up periodically with medical checkups.

The Benefits of Antidepressants and Anxiolytics

But what of the benefits?

On this side of the ledger there is one major benefit… and it can be a game changer. Medication can quickly allow someone with anxiety or depression to feel better, and in doing so unleash their potential to benefit even more from therapy.

Keep in mind, severe anxiety and depression robs a person of the ability to fully utilize his or her strengths. The depressed or anxious person is operating under the incredible weight of these disorders, and this means that they have a difficult time tapping into skills that would otherwise allow them to make greater progress.

An analogy may be helpful (stay with me, this will make sense in just a moment). Imagine you just bought a new car and are driving it home on a country road, enjoying the terrific deal you made (and trying to ignore how much the car depreciated once you drove it off the lot). A dog runs out in front of you, and with Dale Earnhardt like reflexes you swerve, artfully missing the little canine but sending your brand-new set of wheels off the road and into a ditch.

The dust settles. You slowly exit the car and carefully examine it from fender to fender. With a dramatic flair you fall to your knees in gratitude and shout out "Not a scratch! Not a single ding!”  But then, looking around, you realize that you, and your car, are not going anywhere.

It may have all the horsepower and all the other wonderful customized features that first attracted you to it, but you are still in a ditch. That car isn’t going anywhere as long as it is in the ditch.

What do you do?

You call a tow truck, which comes and pulls the car out of the ditch, back onto the road. Now all of those features that could not be made use of while the car was in the ditch are available to you again. You say goodbye to the tow truck, and serenely ride down the road.

Medication can function like that tow truck. When anxiety or depression has put you in a ditch so deep that your abilities and skills are not able to be employed, the right medication can help. It can relieve the symptoms enough to unlock your potential to face challenges, think more clearly, develop creative solutions, to persist toward your goals, and to make the most of therapy.

CONCLUSION

When you are faced with the decision of whether to take medication to help with symptoms of depression or anxiety, consider the costs and benefits. One of the best reasons to take medication is that it has the potential to “turbo charge” your psychotherapy by unleashing the skills and abilities that anxiety and depression have kept suppressed. If your depression, or anxiety, is so severe that it has blocked you from tapping into your strengths, cut you off from those abilities that would help you to effectively fight back and overcome these problems, then medication should be 'on the table.' Don't let your fears, or pride, keep you from taking medication.

By the way, I’m not a physician, so none of the above should be considered medical advice. It is, however, the sort of practical advice I’ve seen work well for many many people.

Let me know if you have any questions. Would love to hear from you.

How to Find The Best Therapist (Part 2)

therapist best depression anxiety trauma folsom

Last week we began looking at how to find the best therapist for you. This process can be a bit of a journey. But it is well worth the effort to find the right therapist. Someone with whom you can develop a close working relationship, and who has the knowledge and skills to be of help. A brief recap of last week's post may help:

1.    Interview several therapists

2.    Expect that a therapist will talk with you like a normal human being

3.    Make sure to work with someone who has experience helping people who are

struggling with the very thing that has caused you to seek therapy

4.    Most importantly, find a therapist that you find to be warm, sincere, and capable

(this type of therapist has the highest level of good outcomes)

Last week I also promised a few more tips to round out the process.  Let’s dive right into these.

ONE: Do not pay too much attention to what degree the therapist has earned (LMFT, LCSW, MD, PhD). Research has shown that there is no meaningful correlation between the quality of therapy and the specific degree a therapist has earned. (I know, sad, because I have a Ph.D.).

TWO: Be certain to ask questions when interviewing a therapist. It’s fine if you want to know how many people they have worked with who struggle with anxiety, depression, trauma, oppositional teens, and so forth.

You are probably also interested in knowing how they go about helping the people with whom they work. That’s a fair question, ask away!

Perhaps you want to know whether they give advice, or do they mainly listen and help clarify issues (leaving it up to you to decide what to do at that point). Does the therapist have books/websites to recommend?

It's reasonable to ask how long it is likely to take before your goals are reached (although an exact answer to that question requires the power of a fortuneteller, a reasonable guess of some type can usually be made).

THREE: Don’t put too much emphasis on how many years a therapist has been in practice. Why? Because research shows that most therapist do not significantly improve their skills after the first five years or so after graduating.

This is not always the case, but it is the norm.

The reason why most therapists stop improving their skills over the years is that they do not engage in the process of systematic and deliberate self-evaluation. This is not a gratuitous criticism of therapists (graduate training doesn’t teach one how to perform meaningful and practical self-evaluation). If you find a therapist that does engage in continuous self-evaluation of his/her performance, and then uses that information to improve his or her skills, that's terrific. Put a star next to their name.

There you go. Honest, it is as simple as that.

Follow these guidelines and you will dramatically increase your chances of finding the best therapist for you. Just to make things easier, I have formatted the tips from today’s post, and last week’s post, into a single checklist.  In case you missed it last week, I will also post again (below) the links to four major therapist directories.  Until next time.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us

https://www.theravive.com/forcounsellors/sign-up/welcome-page.aspx

https://www.goodtherapy.org/

http://www.christiancounselordirectory.com/

 

Trauma Part III: More Simple Ways to Gain Relief

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Therapy Anxiety Depression Trauma Folsom Granite Bay El Dorado Hills

Last week we looked at the first of three ways that you can push back against the symptoms of PTSD. In today’s post we will look at two more approaches. I should repeat, however, what was stated last week: These suggestions are not a replacement for therapy.

Two Ways to Lesson the impact of PTSD

Stay Focused on the Present

If you struggle with PTSD it is very likely that you have several of the following symptoms:

    Nightmares, often but not always related to the trauma incident

    Sudden emotional upset due to something/someone reminding you of the trauma

    Frequently feeling ‘on guard’ or nervous

    Making extra efforts to avoid those things that remind you of the trauma incident

    Frequently experience a sense of guilt, shame, sadness

(For more information about these and other symptoms, look at the Penn Behavioral Health website).

All of these symptoms can be traced in one way or another to a tendency to be pulled back into the past. Our brains use traumatic events the same way that fire engine sirens are used: to gain attention and signal that an emergency has occurred somewhere. The problem is that unlike firefighters, who use the siren only when an emergency is taking place, the PTSD brain blasts the darn siren even when there is no emergency. The PTSD brain spends way too much time thinking about the past, or looking for signs in the present that the bad things of the past are about to be repeated.

It can be exhausting. You need to get some separation between you and the trauma, between you and your past traumatic experiences. One way to gain this distance is to stay focused on the present. Easier said than done you say? Agreed, but there are some strategies that can help. Let’s look at take a look at some ways you can get some serious distance from your traumatic past.

Begin to focus more on the present. Focusing on the present shifts attention away from the trauma of the past.

What can you do to be more ‘present centered’ Let me give you three things to get started upon (use one or all three… or come up with others on your own).

Find an interest, hobby, whatever you wish to call it, and begin regularly spending time involved in that pursuit. If you had an interest/hobby in the past and stopped engaging in it, now is the time to renew that passion.

Perhaps you don’t really feel interested in pursuing anything. You don’t want to go fishing, or crochet a sweater, etc. Understood. But do it anyway. If you wait for the mood to strike you may be waiting a very long time. Besides, our mood generally follows our behavior. Begin to act as though you wish to pursue a former hobby, and before you know it, a genuine interest will have been rekindled. This, in turn, will help shift your attention away from the troubles of the past. In time, you will find it easier to maintain a present centered focus for longer periods of time.

Become more invested in your close relationships. That might be with your spouse, children, or friends. Take a moment to think carefully about ways in which you would like the relationship to grow, and how to reach that goal.

The main thing is genuinely investing yourself in strengthening the relationship. That will take some thought, and energy, but it will be worth the effort. Close, supportive and rewarding relationships help draw people’s attention into the present and develop a sense of optimism regarding the future.

Start doing volunteer work. This is like taking a super multivitamin for your mental health… and it’s good for your physical health as well. 

It does not have to be done every day, but try and fit in an hour or two of volunteer work every week or two. This could be at your local grammar school, church, food bank, soup kitchen, City Park, etc.

You will end up feeling better for having helped others and your focus of attention will have shifted to the present (as you engaged in doing good works). Moreover, you can use memories of this work to re-focus your attention when you find yourself being drawn into memories of the trauma.

Dogs: Man’s best friend and a proven help with ptsd

There are many research supported health benefits that come with pet ownership. You probably knew that already. But did you know that dogs are used to help reduce symptoms of PTSD? Let me be clear, dogs helped reduce PTSD symptoms…. Not cats, fish, reptiles, or parakeets. Dogs… service dogs to be exact.

So what should you do with that information? Well, if you already have a dog that’s terrific: it may be that you hit the jackpot and your four-legged friend is a natural therapist. This could be a good time to start taking Fido on short daily walks (around the neighborhood is good, but out in nature is even better). Perhaps take your dog with you when running errands, or enroll in an obedience course (if your dog is like my dog, this would be the first thing to do).

If you do not already have a dog this is a good time to consider whether your lifestyle and budget would be a good fit for having a canine companero. Although dogs can provide some relief from PTSD symptoms, the added stress of caring for a dog can also make things worse. It really depends upon your individual circumstances, and your temperament. The type of dog you select will also make a huge difference. So select a dog that does not require more care than you can reasonably provide, and one that has a temperament that would be calming. Finding the right dog requires a little research about different breeds. All of this effort will pay off, however, when you find the dog that is just right for you.

That ends Part III of the Trauma series. You now have some basic information on PTSD, what brings it about, common symptoms, and simple ways to push back and regain control over your life.

Keep in mind, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop symptoms of PTSD. For those that do, however, it is important to begin the process of vanquishing those symptoms as soon as possible. If you find that your efforts do not bring about significant relief, find a therapist who can help. 

 

Trauma Part II: Simple Ways to Gain Relief

Therapy Anxiety Depression Trauma Folsom Granite Bay El Dorado Hills

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

“Who would you go to if you had a bad dream in the middle of the night?” I asked. The young girl seated across from me responded by looking away. A moment later she began to cry. Tears streamed down her face. Although the question I had asked would seem, to most observers, innocent enough, for this youngster it triggered a storm of painful emotions.

Because she had grown up in a home where violence was a part of everyday life, and where parents had left her alone at home for days at a time, my question hit a nerve. Vivid memories rushed to the surface and triggered a cascade of painful emotions. She quickly became overwhelmed, and then began to ‘shut down’ as a way to retreat from the past.

The problem this presented at that moment was not simply that this little girl momentarily felt overwhelmed. The deeper difficulty was that I needed to know the details of that painful history if I was going to be of any help to her. When a person who has been traumatized cannot speak of the trauma, being of help becomes more challenging (although not impossible by any means). After sympathizing with how painful her memories must be, I suggested we take a different approach.

“Could you imagine that your memories are showing up on a big flat screen television?” I asked. Looking a little surprised she eventually shrugged her shoulders and nodded ‘yes’ (she probably figured this was just one more therapist making a weird suggestion).

Going further I asked “How far away from us should we put the television?” Her brow wrinkled in thought, and after a few moments she said “Put it just outside the office.” “Sure, we can do that” I responded. “As a matter of fact, let’s put it outside the office door and way down the hallway. And I want you to have the remote so you can control the volume and press pause when you need to.”

She smiled at the thought of having a remote control for her memories. “Should we also build a see through bullet proof, fear proof, nightmare proof glass wall between the television and our office?” I elaborated. Her smile grew bigger.

“OK, fine, we’ll do that. Just tell me how thick it needs to be” was my next question. “Hmmm. Let me think” she said taking a deep breath. “Two feet. Make it two feet thick.” And so it went until we agreed that her memories would be projected on a large flat screen television forty feet away and separated from her by a two thick bullet proof glass wall that went from the floor to the ceiling. In her mind’s eye she held a pink remote control.

Now that we had all of that settled I once more asked who would comfort her at night when she had nightmares. “Don’t forget” I reminded, “The television screen is way down the hall, so you may have to squint some to see those memories.” The little girl smiled again, paused briefly and then answered my question. For the next twenty minutes she spoke haltingly, but with great detail, about the frightening nights she had experienced at home.

Although her feelings of anxiety were still present, they were no longer overwhelming. They could be tolerated, and her memories could be put on ‘pause’ when the need arose. She had begun to feel a small sense of mastery over her past. Together we had found a way for her to feel safe even when remembering horrific events.

When dealing with trauma, establishing a feeling of safety is key. At times safety is found by creating emotional distance (as in the above example), and at other times it can be established by enhancing a sense of competency. In certain instances it is enough to build a strong sense of connection with others in order to engender the essential sense of security. Whatever the means, feelings of safety are critical.

How To Lessen The Impact of PTSD

In today’s post I will briefly describe the first of three ways that someone struggling with PTSD can build a sense of safety, and thereby lessen the impact of trauma on their day to day life. As one becomes better at sustaining this state of mind, the brain begins to rewire neuronal connections. The result is that it becomes easier to maintain a sense of stability and self-control. (Keep in mind that the following is not intended to replace psychotherapy). In my next post I will describe a couple more ways to fight back against PTSD.

Meditation

There has been a great deal of research on meditation and its impact on emotional well-being. Without a doubt, meditation helps most people feel more relaxed, balanced, happy and secure.

The type of meditation required to achieve these goals does not require going to a mountain top, burning incense, or crossing your legs behind your neck and chanting (although the mountain top sounds pretty appealing, so count me in on that trip). Instead, you can meditate while sitting in your favorite chair, or in the office with the door shut and your feet on the desk, or laying by the beach. Heck, if you really want you could meditate at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and the family dog at your feet.

The main thing required for effective meditation is a quiet space – no distractions for 15 to 20 minutes. A reasonably comfortable place to sit or lay down is also needed. After you have the time set aside, and a place to meditate, begin the process by taking a few slow deep breaths.

At the same time begin to clear your thoughts by vividly imagining a calming scene. Paint a picture in your mind’s eye of each sensory element of that scene: the sights, sounds, smell and feel of the location. If, for example, you imagine being on the beach then you will want to imagine the white sand, blue water, clouds, warm breeze, soft sand, the smell of salt in the air and the sound of waves.

For many, just staying in this relaxed state for the duration of your meditation time is enough to bring about the benefits I mentioned earlier. Others, however, will benefit from going over a script that guides them into a relaxed state. If this is more to your liking go to Barbara Fredrickson’s website and listen to recorded meditations.

Fifteen to twenty minutes a day gives good results for most people. There is, however, no magic number. Experiment to see what works best for you. Is it ten minutes twice a day? Fifteen minutes every afternoon? Everyone is different, so find the schedule that works best for you.

Try meditating for at least two weeks and see if it makes a difference. Don’t meditate once and then give up. As with most things in life, this is not a one shot won and done deal. Be consistent, be persistent, and give it a little time. The longer you include meditation in your daily routine the greater the benefit. After you’ve given it a try, I would love to hear how well it worked out for you.

Stayed tuned for next week’s post where I describe two more simple approaches for pushing back against PTSD.

 

Living Your Best Life By Overcoming Challenges

Somewhere between toddlerhood and adulthood most of us learn to dial back our determination or desire to persist when faced with failure. We become complacent and settle for too little in life. We set aside dreams after failing to reach our goals after the first, second or third attempt. Many of us let the fear of failure keep us from experiencing what life holds for us.