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The Roller Coaster of Life and 7 Ways to Manage the Ride

Life is full of disappointments, right?  There are always going to be things that don’t go the way that you expect them to go.  What do you do when things go sideways?  What do you do when you have a plan, and things don’t fall into place?  These moments make life the roller coaster that it is.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not putting down roller coasters.  Roller coasters can be a lot of fun!  I love a good roller coaster.  So, let me rephrase this metaphor; Life can be like a roller coaster in a dark room.

While waiting in line for a usual roller coaster, you get a chance to see the entire track.  You know where the corkscrews, loops, and drops are.  You can mentally prepare for them.  If you’re like me, you take an extra ginger pill just to be sure you’re ready for what is about to happen.  The anticipation is thrilling because you have a plan, or at least a rough outline.  From the first major drop to the train pulling into the station, you have somewhat of an idea of what to expect.  While waiting, you can also read the statistics of the ride.  You may know how tall it is, how fast it goes, and exactly how many times your stomach will be flung upside down.

Life can be just like that roller coaster.  However, for most people the reality is that someone turned out the lights.  The ride is completely in the dark.  In this reality, you are waiting on the platform excited to squeeze yourself into that tiny seat with a safety harness that you will check at least 20 times before and after the ride attendant has checked and gestured the all-clear sign.  You still have a rough plan in your head of what may happen.  You know where you currently are (in line) and where you want to be (walking down the exit ramp), but you have no idea what is going to happen between those two moments in your life.  While you contemplate this experience, you watch people who were before you in line, exit the train with wild expressions on their faces.  Some may be laughing, while others may be ill.  Either way, you are in for a ride!

How then do you prepare for this experience?  That all depends on the 1 of 2 choices in which you routinely choose from when you are governing your life.

The first is to try to control every aspect of your life.  To make sure that everything goes precisely as planned.  This means that you have to anticipate everything and be able to plan for anything.  This takes a lot of mental energy and can lead to a lot of disappointment and anxiety.

The second option is to accept that control is an illusion.  To believe that the only thing that you can control is how to respond to things in life.  Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t a way to live in a world without personal responsibility.  It is a way to accept whatever life hands you. 

Let’s address the notion of control.  The idea of control gives you the sense of safety.  The potential to determine an outcome so that you feel like you are steering your life.  It’s a mental game.  A way to help manage anxiety.  You make the schedules, you pick the directions in your life, and you choose what it is that you believe you want.  You make lists, pie graphs, flow charts, spreadsheets, etc.  All in an attempt to make yourself feel better in moments that are uncertain.  You may also participate in the mental exercise of worry.  Worry is the use of mental energy to focus on a potentially negative outcome.  It is another attempt to make you feel better and in control about a situation where control does not exist.

While you are worrying and making those choices, the outcome of what will happen will remain elusive.  As I mentioned earlier, that idea of control is an illusion.  The only thing you have control over is how you respond to your environment.  Even neuroscience shows that after the age of 35, you are only conscious of 95% of your daily life.  This means that in many cases, you are not even aware of how you respond to things!  A few months ago, something happened in my day.  After a few minutes of my daughter watching me, she told me that she could tell that I was angry.  I didn’t think I was giving any indication that I was.  How did she know how I was feeling when I didn’t say anything, and I wasn’t acting in a manner that would give her that impression?  The answer is that I was unaware of my unconscious body language.  Apparently, when I am angry, I blink a lot and rapidly.  She lovingly pointed out what I was completely unaware of.

So, the only thing that we have control over in life is how we respond.  In addition, this is only when we are consciously aware of our choices and responses.  While waiting in line for a roller coaster, I am consciously aware that I am taking another ginger pill to make sure my stomach can handle the ride.  I have choices in how I handle my mental response as soon as I am aware of myself feeling anxious.

So, how are you able to hand over the reins of control in your life?  How can you not allow yourself to feel victimized by the unforeseen barrel rolls and loops in your roller coaster?  Here are some ways that will allow you to prepare for your ride while you check your safety harness multiple times as I do.

  1. Rewrite your expectations.  Unmet expectations are a leading cause of anger.  Be aware of what you expect from yourself, those around you, and your environment.  Not only be aware of them, communicate them.  Everyone has their own expectations, and more than likely, yours don’t match up with others in your life.
  2. Worrying is not preparation.  Instead of worrying, begin to make a plan for some potential outcomes.  If you have a plan to implement, then there is no need to worry.  If there is honestly nothing you can do in your situation and no plan can help, then worrying is useless. 
  3. When you feel like there is nothing in your life’s situation where you have any control, begin small.  Start to identify what it is that you do have control over.  What shirt will you wear today?  How much sugar do you want to put into your coffee?  Do you even want to have coffee today?  Wait, is that really a question? 
  4. Shift your awareness to the outcomes that you want to see.  Your neurons form relationships with one another.  The more you routinely practice a thought processes, the more you reinforce those relationships.  You have neurological relationships that allow you to tie your sneakers, drive your car, brush your teeth, and yes – worry.  The more you are aware of how you think and behave, the more you can place your attention on focusing on what might be the potential positive outcomes instead of the negative ones. 
  5. Where the mind goes, the body follows.  The more you worry, the more anxious you will feel.  The more you try to exude control over things in your life, the more tense your body will become.  If you are a fan of Princess Elsa, I would suggest heeding her advice.  Do I really need to say it?  Find something else that is healthy where you can channel your mental energy.  Exercise, yoga, meditation, cooking, and yardwork to name a few.  When you channel your thought process into something more productive, like the examples mentioned, your body will follow your thinking and feel less tense.  The brain is not aware of what is happening in our experience versus what we tell it as what is happening.  This is easily seen by the body’s response of tension when thinking about a potential negative outcome that hasn’t even occurred.  Focus your attention on the potential positive outcome.  Your physical body will follow that as well.  Regardless of the outcome of the situation, the time spend while waiting will then physically experienced by wherever you place your attention.
  6. Accept what is currently happening.  You have a choice in your life; to accept things or not to accept things.  What choice makes you feel more grounded in the present?  The choice is yours to consciously make.  A freeing feeling can also be felt when you choose to accept whatever an outcome may be. 
  7. Finally, if these suggestions aren’t helping, call The Center for Trauma, Stress, and Anxiety to make an appointment.  Our phone number is (443) 567-7037.

Exercise Improves Mood: Evidence and 7 Ways To Be More Active

“A sound mind is in a sound body.” – Greek Proverb

Going beyond more than a witty catch phrase, this idea is an important one.  It addresses the idea that the mind is the body.  Check out my earlier post about this here: Reframing Stress as a State of Mind.  [MP1] There is a growing body of research that illustrates that movement, as well as a lack thereof, has an impact on our mental health.  It is widely accepted that exercise increases the production of certain “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain that have a direct influence on our sense of well-being and health.   

The first of these neurotransmitters are endorphins.  Endorphins are neurochemicals that act as pain reducers.  They interact with the opiate receptor of the brain, similar to morphine and codeine.  Due to their interaction with the opiate receptors, we experience euphoria. 

For most of us, exercise is not exactly comfortable.  Due to this discomfort in the body, endorphins are released to help ease the pain associated with added physical stress.  Although these neurotransmitters follows the same pathways as an opiate, it has not been linked to addiction or dependence (Reference).  

The second neurotransmitter that is increased during exercise is serotonin.  Serotonin helps the body regulate its sleep/wake cycle, appetite and digestion, sexual drive, mood and social behavior, memory, the formation of blood clots, and helps maintain self-esteem (Reference ).  Research suggests that in cases of mild depression, exercise is recommended to increase serotonin levels rather than a regimen of  antidepressant medications (Reference). 

The third neurotransmitter that is affected by exercise is dopamine.  Dopamine works directly with memory, the ability to focus on tasks and mental processes, problem-solving, social functioning, movement, mood, and how we process pain (Reference). Dopamine also works with the reward system in our brain.  When we experience something pleasurable, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that drives us to recreate the same conditions that led to the pleasurable outcome.  If exercise increases an endorphin production, and a pleasurable feeling is the result, dopamine is then released to reinforce the recreation of that activity (Reference). 

In a study conducted (Reference ) in 1979, results indicated that “running is just as effective as psychotherapy in alleviating symptoms of depression.”  In this study, individuals were subjected to a 10-week program.  They were separated into 3 groups.  One group ran 3 times per week for 20 minutes per session.  The second group ran 3 times per week and participated in weekly 60-minute cognitive therapy sessions.  The third group solely attended cognitive therapy sessions.  The results showed that all three groups reduced their depressive symptoms as listed on a symptoms checklist.  In addition to that, all three groups maintained a reduction of symptoms during their four-month follow up. 

Adding some exercise to your daily routine doesn’t have to be a stressful event either.  As you can see from the study above, it only takes a few minutes of your day, which could be included in your daily life without having to make extra time for it.  Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Walking for only 20 minutes a day has mood enhancing benefits.  Walk to the store if you can, go for a walk on your lunch break or in the evening after dinner, etc.  Any type of walking that increases your heart rate will help.  (Reference)
  2. You don’t need to go to the gym to do resistance training.  Do some push ups during commercials while watching your favorite television program.  Do some crunches on the alternating commercial breaks.  Walk up and down the stairs in your house.  You can even walk around the house or do lunges with gallons of water. 
  3. If you have time to get to an area where there is nature, head to a state or national park.  Being out in nature PLUS doing something active offers an added boost to your mood. 
  4. Make it social.  Making plans to meet with others to do something active adds the element of accountability into the equation.  Having others to be active with also creates a boost of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is increased through social engagement. 
  5. Run around with your children.  Play a sport with them.  Our children don’t mind if we’re not good at the sports that we play with them.  What matters most is the time that we are taking to spend with them. 
  6. If you are competitive, download an app to help you track your daily activity[MP2] .  This can create a sense of motivation and accomplishment when you begin and complete fitness challenges that some apps offer. 
  7. Most importantly, do something fun.  If it’s not fun, then it might not be sustainable. 

Let’s lace up and get outside together. If you are still unsure how to be more active, give us a call. Also, if you know any adolescents who could benefit from more movement and emotional support, please check out my Adolescent Running Group.




Why Asking For Help is a Sign of Strength and Cooperation

We still reside in a society where strength is defined by doing things independently.  Our society tells us that to admit that we need help is to admit that we are weak.  Yet did you know that the human body is home to 37.2 trillion cells?  These cells cooperate to form organs.  Organs ultimately work together to create the human body.  It is fascinating how each cell communicates with one another without quarrel or competition.  Through a shared biological imperative, our community of cells communicate, share, cooperate, and thrive as one living organism. 

“We still hold on to the antiquated notion that we don’t need anyone in our lives to help us remain healthy and strong, let along work through our stressors.”

Michael Senko, LCSW-C

This is nature’s law of cooperation.  Without it, our bodies would cease to exist.  Entire ecosystems would fall due to a lack of symbiotic relationships between organisms.  Life exists based on cooperation and mutual aid.  This is demonstrated in tropical rain forests, Gunpowder State park, and even in your own backyard.  Each plant, insect, and species of animal coexists in harmony.  However, we still hold on to the antiquated notion that we don’t need anyone in our lives to help us remain healthy and strong, let alone work through our stressors. 

The term “self-help” is a misnomer.  We do nothing in a vacuum.  We were conceived into this world by people.  The formation of our personality is influenced by people.  Our moods, our successes, our perceived failures, the lessons learned in life – all are based on the relationships we have with others.  There are very few things we learn in life that do not involve other people.  Even “self-help” books are written by others, and requires an acknowledgement of needing help.  Oftentimes, the circumstances that lead us to desire reading such a book are the result of someone or something stirring something in us.  Our behavior and the behavior of others impact our lives, whether we are aware of it or not.  To further illustrate this point, the chair that is supporting you this very moment was once designed, manufactured, and sold by other people. 

“No matter how much we try to believe that we don’t need people to help us in life, we can’t escape the fact that we do… It is a biological drive to commune with others for survival.”

Michael Senko, LCSW-C

No matter how much we try to believe that we don’t need people to help us in life, we can’t escape the fact that we do.  I would like to repeat that this is not weakness, it is a biological drive to commune with others for survival.  The acknowledgement of this can only strengthen our awareness of ourselves and those around us. 

There is an analogy that I like to use to help conceptualize the use of therapy aiding in life’s success:

“Therapy is like a 500 piece puzzle. When we get stuck in trying to find the next piece, a therapist can see the puzzle with an objective view and help put the pieces together. When we stare at the puzzle, we become part of the puzzle.  The therapist is there to help us create the space between us and the issues that we face.” 

We find ourselves – who we truly are – in our relationships.  If we find ourselves in recurrent situations that we are not happy with, it is important for us to understand the common denominator in those situations is ourselves.  The thing is, we don’t see ourselves objectively.  We see what we want to see.  If the lessons that you were taught about yourself when you were younger are those that are negative, your viewpoint about yourself and your reality is going to be skewed.  If you have experienced trauma in your life, once again, the lens in which your relationships and the world in general will also be altered. 

There is no shame in asking for objective help in learning about and finding ways to cope with what might be causing you distress.  We all experience stress in our lives. We all have problems. It is a sign of strength to admit when we need to talk to someone.  Just like the nature of our body’s biological imperative to survive, we need to work cooperatively in order to help us remain healthy in life.

If you’re ready to tap into the strength that comes from asking for help, reach out to one of our therapists today. We can help you gain a more objective perspective on challenges your facing within the safety of a supportive, non-judgmental environment.

Showcase your strength and give us a call today at 443-567-7037!

Yes, There is an Adolescent Brain: 4 Ways to Help You and Your Adolescent Succeed

There is an adolescent brain, and it is much different than the adult brain.  The adult brain has a fully functioning Prefrontal Cortex (PFC).  This is the part of the brain that allows adults to access their executive functioning and assess subtle nuances in communication.  During adolescence, the PFC is under construction.  Adolescents aren’t able to fully access this part of the brain until age 25 .  This puts parents into a very important role: the role of a surrogate PFC. 

Adolescents are feeling and experiencing life just like everyone else, but in a unique way.

The executive functions of the brain are very important.  They allow for the person to be able to learn.  The PFC governs behaviors such as being able to concentrate, screen out distractions, remain persistent while being frustrated, consciously calming the body down, assessing risk in situations, and managing emotional and behavioral impulses.  According to David Walsh, PhD., the executive function acts like the “air traffic controller” for the brain. 

The executive function has 3 distinct roles:

  1. Working memory – Working memory only lasts seconds to minutes.  It allows the brain to be able to link new information to longer term memories so we can comprehend what is being learned.
  2. Inhibitory controls – The brain’s ability to filter out information and a braking mechanism.  It allows the brain to filter out distractions and manage impulses and temptations.
  3. Mental flexibility – The brain’s ability to think abstractly.  To think “outside the box.”  It allows the person to adjust to new and changing information.

Because the adolescent brain is not using the PFC effectively, the adolescent is being governed by other neurological areas.  One of these areas is the amygdala.  The amygdala is considered to be the “seat of fear and anger.”  Adults rely on the PFC to communicate, while an adolescent’s initial responses are derived from the amygdala. 

McLean Hospital, near Boston, conducted a study lead by Deborah Yurgelun-Todd.  In the study, adults and adolescents were subjected to a series of photographs.  The photographs were of people experiencing various emotional states.  The individual had to identify what emotion was being depicted in the photograph.  Brain scans showed that the adults used their PFC to identify the emotional expression.  While the adults were using the rational part of the brain to read others’ emotions, the adolescents were using their amygdala.  These results show that the adults were more equipped with providing the correct emotional depiction, whereas the adolescents were frequently incorrect.  For example, adolescents were mistaking fear or surprise for anger, and were identifying the emotions in the photographs with their “gut reaction(s).” 

This study gives some insight as to how adolescents think and experience their world much more differently than adults.  Combining differences in the ways adolescents use their brains with changing hormones, it makes sense as to how there can be two different realities coexisting in the same conversation with your adolescent.  This means the adolescent may experience a different perception of the conversation, and react impulsively, thus resulting in a potential argument.  Therefore, it is important to be aware of the varying realities of an adolescent, and begin to adjust your own communication accordingly. 

There are many ways to help improve your communication and your relationship with your adolescent. 

  1. Remember that as an adult, you are the substitute PFC for your adolescent.  That gives you the responsibility to remain more calm and deliberate in your approach to different topics, and to adjust to the changing mood around a particular conversation. 
  2. Expect impulsivity and be patient and flexible. When done on a consistent basis, this strategy can increase a sense of safety and trust in the parent-child relationship. 
  3. Ask questions to make sure you are hearing and understanding the subject matter correctly, as opposed to quickly reacting to your adolescent’s mood, can help keep yourself calm in a stressful conversation. 
  4. Plan out difficult conversations and have an outline for how you are going to handle the potential varying realities in the same discussion. 

Adolescents are feeling and experiencing life just like everyone else, but in a unique way.  We have all had the experience of being an adolescent, so we all know the potential challenges that are being faced during that phase of life.  For more ways to better relate and to your adolescent and improve communication, please contact us! 


Reframing Stress as a State of Mind

What if you could reframe stress in a way that allowed for more flexibility and led to greater relief? Here’s how to reframe stress, and 5 strategies we use to keep it at a minimum!

It is widely accepted that our state of mind impacts our physical body.  We have even adopted this into our common language.  “Pain in the neck” is a well-used phrase that demonstrates a level of stress that someone is experiencing.  This phrase is usually relegated to an identified individual or event that is creating a stress response within us that is then being felt physically.  Stress is an experience that is derived from a perception.  We observe something in our environment, and we respond to it internally.  We believe something is happening; therefore, our bodies respond.  What that means is that our body is responding to a belief, something that may not actually be happening to us. 

Let’s put this into an example.  You are sitting in traffic on your way to work and you start thinking about the possibility of being late for an important meeting.  Scenarios begin to play in your mind of what will happen if you are late.  You start to worry, and you start to feel stressed.  This entire process began with one thought; the thought about being late.  You don’t have any proof that you will in fact be late, it is just a thought.  There is no evidence that you will be late because that is in the future, and you can’t predict the future.  Regardless, you begin to feel slightly panicked.  You feel a pit develop in your stomach.  Your head gets light and fuzzy.  Your heart rate and respiration begin to increase.  Your body is beginning to feel the results of Fight or Flight.  Your body is responding in a way to prepare you to survive a dangerous situation.  Remember, this is all perceived and you may not be late for the meeting after all.  If you have thoughts of this nature often, your body continues to experience this same stress reaction repeatedly, and you will begin to feel muscle tension. 

Our body is responding to a belief, something that may not actually be happening to us.

– Michael Senko

This leads me back to the earlier example of having a pain in the neck.  This muscle tension is based on a perceived moment in your life.  Now, in addition to the traffic, let’s take this moment and add work responsibilities, family and relationship responsibilities, bills and financial responsibilities, and any other ongoing daily responsibilities that you may also be experiencing.  If all those items are occurring for long periods of time, and the list seems to continue to expand, a stiff neck may in fact be a result.

The previous example is just one demonstration of the mind-body experience that could result in a negatively felt outcome.  The body and brain are consistently communicating through the means of chemicals.  We witness a moment in our lives, then we repeatedly replay that moment in our minds making us feel a certain way time and again.  Ultimately, the feelings of those moments will begin to live in our physical bodies as memories.  The more you practice a thought process or behavior, the more proficient you become at replicating that same process in the future.

On a more helpful note, driving is another example of the same process.  Our bodies do the driving while other parts of the brain ponder what to make for dinner or that we have laundry to do when we get home.  Our rehearsal of driving further reinforces the muscle memory of the action of driving.  Whether it is driving or worrying, the same memorization process occurs.  If left unchecked, a negatively felt process can lead to more than just a “pain in the neck.”  Headaches, back pain, illnesses, acne, and ulcers are just a few examples that medical professionals have already accepted as the results of prolonged psychological distress. 

Now that we have some insight into how our psychological stress can translate directly into uncomfortable physical situations, let’s now at some coping skills to help reduce the occurrence of these moments.  It is important, however, to practice these following strategies daily, and not only when stress is at its most intense. 

  1. Meditation – Meditation is the act of focusing on one thought at a time.  This can be accomplished by focusing on your breathing, or a repeated thought process such as a mantra.  By practicing the focusing of your thoughts, you can begin to slow down worrisome thought cycles, and develop the control of what you would rather think about instead.  There are many books and videos available to help begin and develop a meditative practice.  Practicing a form of daily meditation helps reduce the bodies nervous system activation, thus allowing you to feel more of a sense of calm in situations that used to be stressful.
  2. Journaling – Journaling is an effective way to practice your thought and feeling identification.  The simple act of writing down what you are thinking and feeling can, in and of itself, help make you feel better.  But the main purpose of journaling is to bring your awareness to what you is going on in your mind and body.  The more aware you are of what is going on in your mental, emotional, and physical experience, the more you will be able to institute change and feel a sense of mastery in your life.
  3. Massage – Therapeutic massage helps reduce muscle tension.  Let’s face it, it can also feel pretty darn good, too.  So, give yourself the time that you deserve and schedule a session for massage.
  4. Nutrition – Food effects mood.  What we put into our bodies will inevitably impact how we feel.  It is known that caffeine can contribute to anxiety and higher blood pressure.  It is also known that alcohol and illicit drugs impact the brain’s development and functioning.  Attempt to be more mindful of what you are eating and when.
  5. Exercise – Research shows that exercise increases dopamine levels, helping us be more resistant to depression and can create an outlet for anxious energy.  Finding groups with whom you can exercise can create accountability for when you are not in the mood to be active.  So, “take a hike” to reduce that “pain in the neck.”   

There are many other ways in which you can reduce your stress levels.  Aromatherapy, gardening, music therapy, creative arts, etc.  Everyone has their own unique formula for what works best for them.  Experiment to find out what the perfect combination is for you. 

How Being Present Helps You Stay in Love

“Out beyond the ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.  When the soul lies down on that grass, the world is too full to talk about.  Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”

– Rumi

Romantic relationships challenge us on our deepest levels.  This is because they can touch upon unresolved pain from our childhoods.  We are attracted to those who resemble parts of our past.  Our relationships carry the potential to generate our greatest levels of healing.  However, our relationships also have the ability to further wound us in many of those same areas.

Regardless of how you met your partner, and what attracts you to them, when it comes to deep communication and acceptance, you need to be able to meet in the place that Rumi speaks about.  This field is a place where ego isn’t able to exist.  A place of utter acceptance, love, compassion, and empathy.  This field may have existed within the first few months of meeting your partner.  During this time, you were so conscious of how you responded to your partner; how you demonstrated your listening skills, how you tried to be emotionally available, energetic, intelligent, witty, attractive, etc.

“We are attracted to those who resemble parts of our past.”

– Michael Senko

This field is the same place where you allowed yourself to be vulnerable.  You allowed yourself to be open to love and to be loved.  Where you shared your thoughts, feelings, and experiences.  It is a beautiful place of acceptance and compassion.  You were able to feel like a child and play.  You felt safe and carefree.  A place where you could laugh and cry if need be.  In this field, there was no judgement.

Somewhere during your relationship, you began to forget your way to this field.  You began to allow fear to enter your relationship.  You began to retract, recoil, and defend.  Since offense can be the best defense, you found yourself attacking your partner.  The safety that was once felt in that field began to disappear.  What was once oneness, separateness began to dominate.

There are reasons for this.  During the course of time and the stressors of life, you began to see that your partner isn’t able to heal all of the wounds from your past.  Maybe your partner has unresolved issues from their past as well, prohibiting them from always being able to be there for your needs.  This can lead to a sense of fear and abandonment, thus resulting in the need to self-protect and defend.

When this happens, you begin to lose your conscious presence.  You begin to act unconscious in your relationship.  You begin to respond to things you perceive, as opposed to things that are actually present.  You begin to see and hear things that are based in fear, and not the actual words or intent of what your partner is saying.  You react to these perceptions, which in turn leads to recurring arguments.  You may find yourself feeling like a child again; stuck, scared, abandoned, rejected, not good enough, etc.  You have totally lost your way back to that field.

Fortunately, there is a way back to the field that brought you so much joy!  You were there once before, so you intuitively know you have ability to get back there again.  However, there is a catch; it takes effort and concentration.  It takes consistency and courage.  It takes the ability to be conscious.  This also means you need to allow yourself to be vulnerable once more.  There is a paradox in romantic relationships; the more you allow yourself to be more vulnerable, the stronger (not weaker) you begin to feel.

“Happiness can only live in the present moment.”

– Michael Senko

Consciousness is the key for getting back to that field.  In order to be conscious, you need to be aware.  You need to be aware of what you are thinking, feeling, and behaving.  It is within this state of awareness that joy can then be experienced.  When you are conscious, you are present.  Happiness can only live in the present moment.

When you practice consciousness, you are able to be there for your partner, emotionally and physically.  You are not allowing yourself to be triggered to travel into your past where old wounds and pain exist.  You are not forming judgement.  You are being right here and right now.  There is no need for self-defense, and no need to go on the attack.  When your partner does the same, you both get back in touch with being one, once more.  You are able to retain your individuality, but simultaneously, reconnect with your oneness.

There are many ways to help regain your connection and oneness.  If you are interested in working on being more conscious in your life and with your partner, and being able to play in that field once more, give us a call.

5 Strategies for Preventing Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the Winter Blues

Winter is not my favorite time of year. The frosty temperatures and short days can make anyone (read: me) want to curl up under a huge blanket and hibernate until the warmth returns.

For those who struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), winter can be particularly challenging. Those with the “Winter Blues” tend to become withdrawn, have low energy, and feel generally sad or irritable. They  also tend to engage in habits that actually reinforce their low mood as well, such as overeating and craving carbs (which leads to weight gain) and oversleeping.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
– Benjamin Franklin

While the Winter Blues usually clear up on their own once the spring rolls around, it can be fairly painful to manage that 3-5 month window while waiting for warm weather and longer days.

So what is the best way to combat the Winter Blues? Prevention.

And that means starting now while the trees are full of color and the temperatures are still warm enough for apple picking and pumpkin chunkin’ festivals.

So, here are our 5 Strategies for Preventing SAD and the Winter Blues:

1. Exercise 

I know, I know. Don’t quit on me already! I’ll keep this short and sweet. You don’t have to join a CrossFit gym or train for a marathon. You just have to do a little bit more than what you’re doing now (unless you’re the 2% that is already smashing it at the gym). Exercise releases all those feel-good hormones like serotonin, which is linked to our mood.

Take your dog for a slightly longer walk (trust me, he will enjoy it too!). Commit to doing a set up push-ups or crunches each day. Maybe even do a challenge (I personally love this one)! Or maybe even just commit to actually using that gym membership you’ve been paying for – just commit to twice a week. Even if it’s just to walk on the treadmill!

The point is, you don’t have to do morph into some fitness model, but you should do something.

2. Eat Clean

As we head towards the coldest part of winter, we’re also heading into the most gluttonous time of the year. The holidays are full of carbs and sweet deliciousness! But too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Not only for our mid-sections, but also for our mental health.

Think of your brain like a car. If you give your car enough cheap fuel, over time it becomes less efficient and may eventually break down. Our bodies are no different. We can enjoy some sugary sweets and slices of pizza every now and then, but if that’s the primary fuels we’re relying on, we’re headed for a break down.

For more on how food affects our brains and mood, check out this Harvard blog post. 

Strive for the 80/20 rule. Treat yourself here and there. Go ahead and enjoy a slice of that sinfully decadent chocolate cake… 20% of the time.

The other 80% of the time, make clean, healthy choices. We know that processed sugars and carbs affect our mood and energy. So try eating unprocessed, lean foods (vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish, chicken and seafood).

Click here for more information on food and mental health.

3. Get Some Sunlight 

There is a growing body of research that is finding a link between bright light, especially in the mornings, and improved mood. Our bodies take in sunlight (in the form of UV rays) and produce Vitamin D, which has been linked with a whole plethora of health benefits including our mental health. Unfortunately, it has been estimated that 70% of us are not getting enough Vitamin D!

I will be the fist to say this is easier said than done in the winter. When it’s cold, I don’t want to even think about being outside without being wrapped up in enough clothing to look like the Michelin Man. With all that clothing on, how do you get sunlight anyway?

If you’re like me, you thought, “Hmm, well maybe I’ll just sit in front of the window in the mornings with my face to the sun, sipping steamy coffee, and I’ll stay warm and toasty right from my comfy chair.” Spoiler alert: most glass windows block UV rays, which kind of defeats the whole purpose. Sorry!

If you’re completely against getting outside and spending some time in the sun during the chilly days coming up, there are a few other options.

Research suggests that artificial light may be just as beneficial. There are some really cool therapeutic grade light boxes on the market right now that you can use at your desk or in the kitchen while you’re cooking your (80% healthy!) meals. There is also an AMAZING light therapy alarm clock on the market that simulates a natural sunrise to kick start your day. This one is on my personal Christmas wish list this year!

Check out how Norway and Sweden are using light and mirrors to keep entire towns merry all winter!

Lastly, when all else fails, you can just as easily pick up some Vitamin D over the counter. Of course, always consult with your physician before taking anything and to determine how much you’ll need to see true benefit.

4. Pick up a new hobby

When we start feeling a little crappy, the tendency is to withdraw from other people and pleasurable activities. But this is the exact opposite of what we need, and only reinforces depression, poor mood and anxiety.

So, all we’re asking for is a little behavioral activation – that’s a fancy word therapists use to encourage people to get out and do more pleasurable activities that are rewarding for you. Doing things we enjoy releases powerful, feel-good hormones that stave off SAD and the Winter Blues.

And no, behavioral activation doesn’t have to mean you have to take up skiing or ice hockey this winter – although that would help embrace these chilly months ahead! It just means taking up something you’d enjoy doing. Think outside the box! What about taking up pottery, or glass blowing, or archery? The world is your oyster.

5. Plan a vacation!

Sometimes that weekly guitar lesson that you love isn’t enough. And most of us aren’t able to be Florida snow birds and head south for the winter months.

Planning a vacation somewhere warm to break up the winter can be the perfect solution. Plus, the excitement and anticipation around planning a trip good for the soul, too!

I often talk with my clients about our “buckets.” When we’re feeling healthy, nurtured, and supported, our buckets are full. As we get run down and overextended, the bucket starts to empty. If we go on too long, the bucket may run completely dry, which is where depression and exhaustion can rear its ugly head.

So take some time to fill up your buckets in preparation for this winter. And then make sure you’re doing things that pour into your bucket to keep it near full as the winter drags on.

What are some of your strategies for staying healthy through the winter? Comment below! 

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

– Winston Churchill

What is Equine Assisted Therapy, Really?

In a small grassy paddock, still wet with dew, a white speckled horse is trotting around with her tail held high. As you approach the fence, she stops to look at you. Her breath is quick and she is momentarily wary of you. After a brief pause, she begins to walk towards you with slow, deliberate steps. Her ears are forward and her nostrils are flaring, reading you for clues about whether you are safe. As you reach out your hand, her breath steadies and her eyes soften. She drops her soft mouth into your hands to say hello again, and it is time to begin.

This magnificent creature is one of a new collective of animals that is helping therapists treat everything from addiction to autism to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Most of us are already aware of the invaluable benefit of dogs as helpers for individuals who are blind, deaf, diabetic, or epileptic. But we are only beginning to tap into the immense psychological benefits of working with horses.

The horse is the perfect mirror. By their very nature, they are highly emotional and intelligent beings. What they can show you about yourself can change your life.

Equine Assisted Therapy has been gaining recognition as a powerful approach to treatment that leads to profound healing and insight. Last year Selena Gomez opened up about her experience with Equine Assisted Therapy, and how it helped heal her anxiety and depression. She described Equine Assisted Therapy as “so beautiful… It was hard work, obviously… [But] a lot has changed. I feel a lot more centered, more accepting.”

So what makes horses such powerful healers?

The horse is the perfect mirror. By their very nature, they are highly emotional and intelligent beings. What they can show you about yourself can change your life.

As prey animals, they are vulnerable to attack. Safety is a priority to them. So to survive, they remain highly aware of their surroundings and in tune with their environment. So when someone walks into their space, they pay great attention to what that person is feeling and doing.

Horses see us for who we are, and they push us to be authentic and genuine.

Horses are not domestic like cats or dogs. They’re born wild and have to be tamed. You have to earn their trust. So the process of getting to know a horse is a highly unique opportunity to learn about relationships, communication, connection, and identity.

Horses are also highly social beings. The emotional part of their brain is very large and they form meaningful and complex relationships with other horses in their herd. When a person enters their space, the horses evaluate you for who you are in the moment. Horses can pick up on things we can’t. So when something is going on internally that you may be masking from friends, family, and colleagues, it won’t work in the arena. Horses see us for who we are, and they push us to be authentic and genuine.

Even if you feel intimidated by a horse’s size, and you walk up to him with a pounding heart and trembling hands, it is ok! I’ve seen one of our horses walk right up to a terrified child and drop his head down into the child’s chest for a reassuring hug. Our horses have an incredible gift for knowing what you need and for teaching you how to be your best self.

So how exactly does Equine Assisted Therapy work?

In all equine-related activities, including therapy, safety is the primary concern. In addition to the horses you’ll be working with, each session includes a team of two humans: a licensed Mental Health Therapist who is EAGALA certified (the gold standard for Equine Assisted Therapy) and an Equine Specialist. The Mental Health Therapist’s job is to work with you on your goals and focus on your healing and growth (Check out our EAGALA certified Therapists: Lynn Eskite-Tant, LCSW and Michelle Perry, PhD). The Equine Specialist is someone who has an extensive background with horses and knows our horses exceptionally well. Her role is to focus on the horses and what they are experiencing in response to your work. You can check out Ashley Basso, our Equine Specialist, here.

You may forget a conversation you had with your counselor or coach a few months later, but you won’t forget what happened when you stood in an arena with a group of horses.

This unique, team-based approach helps you learn about yourself and others by participating in activities with the horses on the ground. There is no riding involved, so it is much safer and you don’t have to have any prior experience with horses. Through structured activities, you are learning about the influence you have on the horses, the way they respond to you, and how that translates to life outside the arena.

How long does it take to start feeling better with Equine Assisted Therapy?

Equine Assisted Therapy uses the healing bond you build with the horses to facilitate change, and therapeutic results begin immediately. You may forget a conversation you had with your counselor or coach a few months later, but you won’t forget what happened when you stood in an arena with a group of horses.

Because of the intensity and effectiveness of Equine Assisted Therapy, it is considered a short-term or “brief” approach to therapy. As your bond deepens with the horse, self-awareness grows and healing begins, which starts as early as the first session.

To learn more about what you can expect with our EAGALA accredited Equine Assisted Therapy program, watch this short video below, or reach out to us for more information at info@CTSAtherapy.com.

“One of the most painful parts of losing someone to suicide is the realization that their pain and hopelessness was so heavy that they felt they could no longer carry the load. Even more heartbreaking is the belief that this load was theirs to carry alone.”

The official kickoff of Mental Illness Awareness Week was Monday. That morning, I came across this picture of strangers clinging tenaciously to a man who was trying to throw himself off a bridge. By Monday evening, a friend we care for deeply had shared that his struggle with Bipolar Disorder was becoming unbearable, and he was overwhelmed with thoughts of suicide. Just a few hours later that night, my family was reeling from the news that someone else we cared for died by suicide earlier in the day.

Each year, millions of Americans struggle under the burden of a mental health condition. To honor the widespread impact of both those who suffer personally, and those who are indirectly affected by mental illness, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) sponsors Mental Illness Awareness Week. Their goal? To spread awareness about the importance of mental health and to speak out against stigma around mental illness.

One of the most painful parts of losing someone to suicide is the realization that their pain and hopelessness was so heavy that they felt they could no longer carry the load. Even more heartbreaking is the belief that this load was theirs to carry alone. Family members, friends, and colleagues are left wondering – “How could I not know? How could I not have seen it? What could I have done differently?”

Here’s the thing about depression and suicide – well, about mental illness in general… We don’t talk. We feel alone. We feel like no one can understand, or like we might be a burden to someone else if we share our pain. We feel ashamed or embarrassed. We feel like we should be able to figure it out on our own. That, my friends, is stigma.

A new TV series aired last week – A Million Little Things. The pilot episode begins with someone who died by suicide. The friends, in complete disbelief, are trying to make sense of why someone who seems (at least on the outside) to have it all together would take his own life. Then someone says:

“Maybe he just lost sight of the horizon? I was watching this documentary on JFK Junior. You remember when his plane went down?… Kennedy was a pilot and he was flying at night and the clouds came in. His instruments were telling him which way was up but he didn’t trust them. The truth was right in front of him and he couldn’t see it. And he lost site of the horizon and nose-dived. By the time he realized what was happening it was too late. He couldn’t pull up… That’s depression.”

At times we all lose our way. This life hits hard. It holds no punches. We all stumble and fall – repeatedly. And sometimes the weight of our suffering seems incredibly heavy and unjust.

But if we all struggle, why are some of us choosing to go at it alone?

Kevin Hines, the most well-known survivor of a suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge has shared that he was waiting for just one person to reach out and say something to him. That if just one person had stopped to ask if he was alright, he would not have jumped. No one reached out to him, and in exchange, he didn’t reach out to anyone either.

The gut-wrenching part? As soon as Kevin Hines jumped he realized it was a mistake. Incredibly, he survived and now he spends his life sharing his story. But he’s not alone. There are many survivors who have shared their story and report regretting their decision as soon as they started. They are the lucky ones. They got to “pull up” in time.

So I want to say something to you. To my friends, colleagues, family, clients, and the strangers I have yet to meet. This is something I wish I could say to our family member who suffered quietly, alone, before taking his precious life. Something I have shared and will continue to share with a friend who fights the good fight and struggles under the weight of his depression. Hold on. Don’t quit. I promise, this too shall pass.

And I want to beg you to talk about it. Tell someone. Take a deep breath and muster up just a tiny bit of courage and strength and resilience, and say “I am in pain. I can’t see the horizon any longer. I don’t know how much longer I can hang on. Please help me before I make a decision I might regret.”

Be vulnerable. Be brave. In this world of heartbreak there are good people who would give their last breath to save just one soul. I see it every day buried under the mudslinging and narcissism and vanity. All you have to do is reach out. It does get better. Nothing – including pain – lasts forever. There are people who can catch you. There are people who will smile under the shared weight of your pain. And someday, when you’re feeling stronger, you can share in their weight too.

All you have to do is reach out.

You don’t have to feel alone. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you’re thinking about suicide.

Experiencing a traumatic event does not mean you or your loved one will go on to develop PTSD.

Fear and anxiety are common reactions during and immediately after a traumatic event. Fear is actually adaptive in these moments, helping the body to defend against danger or avoid it, known as the “fight-or-flight” response. These innate and adaptive responses help to protect us from harm by flooding our body with the stress hormones we need to respond appropriately. Over time, when the body realizes its safe again, those stress hormones will stop pumping through your body and you’ll begin to feel the symptoms dissipate gradually.

Those who continue to experience those symptoms long after the traumatic event has passed may go on to be diagnosed with PTSD. People with PTSD generally feel those same feelings of stress, fear, and anxiety even when they are no longer in danger.

Fortunately, only approximately 7 to 8% of people will experience PTSD in their lives. Considering most of us will experience a traumatic event in our lifetime, these rates are very low.

There are a large number of factors that play a role in whether or not someone may fall into that category and go on to develop PTSD. The National Institute of Mental Health has identified a number of factors that might make someone at greater risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic event:

•            Living through dangerous events and traumas

•            Getting hurt during the event

•            Seeing another person hurt, or seeing a dead body

•            Childhood trauma

•            Feeling horror, helplessness, or extreme fear during the event

•            Having little or no social support after the event

•            Dealing with additional stress after the event (e.g., pain, injury, loss of loved one, job loss)

•            Having a past history of mental illness or substance abuse

 

But there is hope! The National Institute of Mental Health also recognizes a number of important factors that may reduce the risk of going on to develop PTSD following a traumatic event:

•            Seeking out and utilizing social support from friends and family

•            Participating in a support group after a traumatic event

•            Learning to feel positive about your actions during the traumatic event in the fact of danger

•            Having a positive coping strategy (i.e., a healthy way of getting through the bad event and learning from it)

•            Being able to act and respond effectively despite feeling fear

Fortunately, many of the factors that reduce the risk of developing PTSD are things that can be accomplished with the support of a therapist early on after experiencing a traumatic event. Perhaps the greatest two predictors of health after a trauma are good social support systems and maintaining a hopeful, positive outlook.

If you’re struggling after experiencing a traumatic event, there is hope! Treatment with an effective trauma therapist involves education about symptoms, teaching skills that identify the triggers of symptoms, and learning skills to manage and reduce symptoms. Get started on your path to restored health today!