Grateful for our Hardships


How to derive strength and positive change from trauma and loss, especially with help.


When something tragic happens to us at first, it’s overwhelming, scary and painful. It takes all we’ve got to get through it, survive it, and heal from it. The thought of recovering from it enough to see the positive aspects of the event is remote and difficult. However, the ability to eventually find gratitude for our hardships helps make us resilient and stronger than before. It is an important aspect of healing, and transcending, trauma and loss. But what would allow you to be grateful for such a tragic event?

Dr. Martin Seligman stated that he and colleagues asked visitors of his website about traumatic events that happened to them, as well as a subjective wellness survey; he found that people who had survived at least one traumatic event in their lives had more strengths than people who had none (Dr. Seligman’s website). What is it about hardship that makes people become stronger? Is it the ability to relate to others? Maybe it’s being tested against extreme stress and surviving, that gives people a boost of confidence they might not otherwise have. Perhaps it makes a person appreciate their loved ones or re-evaluate their priorities in light of what happened to them.

I’d like to tell you about a training program that the US Military uses to foster gratitude after traumatic experiences, as relayed by Dr. Martin Seligman in Flourish. The name of the program is Post Traumatic Growth and is headed by Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Dr. Richard McNally. It’s based on the idea that “we should make the most of the fact that trauma often sets the stage for growth” and it teaches soldiers how to create ways to grow because of their traumatic experiences. Soldiers are given a psychological test that measures how much benefit they derived from traumatic experiences and are then taught to understand their response to the trauma, reduce their anxiety, tell other people about their experiences in a helpful way, and to create a “trauma narrative” that helps them see that they both lost and benefited from the experience. In addition, the life principles that foster strength in the face of challenge are spoken, and this helps people remember that they can get through other challenges in the future as well. To learn and grow from the traumatic incidences is the ultimate power over the events, and this program helps them do that.

I greatly admire this program and encourage you to think about sad or trying times in your life. Yes, there were pain, fear, sorrow, and anguish. But you’ve survived those times, and you have the opportunity to learn and grow from them.

My Part, Your Part


Fights don’t usually start with only one person. This will help you recognize your part and drop the defensiveness that erodes and stagnates relationships.


Lately I’ve been noticing that many people notice what other people do wrong and get quite upset about it, without taking time to consider their participation in the perceived problem. This often takes place in arguments with loved ones, whether the loved ones are friends, family members or lovers. I’d like to take the time to help you rectify this problem if you notice it in yourself.

We love to be right. We don’t like having people point out our flaws, because we fear their rejection and negative opinion. This is perfectly human and understandable. But it we persist in seeing only what other people are doing wrong and ignore our contribution to the interaction, we miss the opportunity to take responsibility for our actions and improve the situation by acting differently. So we keep feeling like victims, put upon by the whim of other people who are totally unpredictable and unfair.

Do you want to stay in a victim role? Or would you rather feel like you can behave differently in an argument? Hopefully you want the latter, because that is the only way I see out of this mess.

Next time someone gets angry at you or has a problem with what you’re doing, try these four steps:

  1. Notice the feeling that arises in you and accept that feeling. That doesn’t mean you indulge it by acting on it. But it also means that you acknowledge, “I feel angry and like defending myself” without judging yourself for feeling that.
  2. Reflect on what happened before this person got upset with you. As if you were observing the interaction on TV or in a movie, look at the actions that preceded and came after the anger. What were you doing, what were they doing, how did you react to their actions, how did they react to yours…. you get the picture.
  3. If you can see something that you might have done to contribute to it, accept responsibility for that. Don’t conveniently block it out of your mind. Don’t pretend that you had nothing to do with it. If you’re not clear on why they’re angry, ASK, don’t assume.
  4. If they’re not ready to take responsibility for their negative behavior, give them time to cool off before writing them off. If this is new for you, asking for responsibility from yourself and others in such interactions, then try to have patience for the other person and for yourself. It’s a new skill. You’ll get better the more you do it. So will they, hopefully.

Sometimes people don’t take responsibility because to admit fault is to sink into a quicksand pit of shame. If admitting wrongdoing does that to you, it’s probably indicative of low self-esteem and probably a good idea to get professional help. If you feel really angry every time someone points out something you did wrong, it may be an indication that you are covering up your shame or over-compensating for low self-esteem.

Hopefully you can take responsibility for your part in an argument, and the other person can too. It’s really a pain when only one person routinely takes responsibility, and that can lead to resentment, which makes your relationships suffer as a result.

 

 

When Your Partner Can’t Cope


Considerations when one member of a couple fairs better psychologically than the other does.


When I work with couples, there is sometimes a difference in the level of functioning between the partners. Sometimes, people who like to take care of other people wind up with partners who are very damaged psychologically. This can be challenging, because the partner who isn’t as damaged expects more out of their partners them what they can deliver. It is a fine line between accepting abusive behavior and understanding that the person has had a difficult childhood or difficult past experiences in general. I do think that compassion is always a good idea, but sometimes compassion can turn into enabling behavior. We can be supportive and understanding of each other’s painful past, and accommodate it to a degree, but when it starts becoming a one-way relationship wherein one party is always favored or given his or her way, it stops being healthy for both partners.

This difference in functioning is not necessarily restricted to heterosexual couples. It can also happen in gay, lesbian, or polyamorous couples as well. I use a heterosexual couple as an example here but it could be any two people whose psychological function differs significantly, enough to cause relationship problems.

Meet Mary and Mac

Let me give you an example. Mary and Mac have been together for six years. Mary has been through a lot of trauma and often has angry outbursts where she cannot be talk to in a reasonable way and she cannot control her anger enough to have a productive conversation. Mac, wanting to be understanding, allows himself to be talk to in a demeaning, hurtful way that makes him feel insecure and depressed. This is been going on for at least two years, and Mary expects back to tolerate this without question or objection. Mac has asked Mary on repeated occasions to get help, but Mary says that she’s not ready yet. The truth is that Mary is frightened of the idea of facing all the horrible things that happened to her, and would rather skip processing that and just go on with life as if nothing happened. I can understand why this would be more tempting, but when she drinks or is just stressed, the anger and frustration that she was never able to express to her perpetrators come out. What should Mary do, and what should Mac do?

Often by the time they reach couples therapy, a lot of damage has been done because they say things to each other during fights that cannot be undone. Max starts to shut down more and more, or stonewall his partner. As Mary senses Mac pulling away, she becomes more desperate and her emotions more out of control. Usually these situations don’t work until individual therapy for the person who is in the most distress, has taken place. This is especially true if there is domestic violence going on. Couples therapy can bring up a lot of painful issues, and it’s important that both partners have a safe, responsible way to cope with their feelings. Sometimes therapists mistakenly think that they can see a couple where battery is going on, but it is best to refer them to anger management and other resources before attempting couples therapy.

 

Recommendations

It’s also important for the person who is coping better to get some help. Work on boundaries and self esteem is crucial when you have a partner who is emotionally needy or abusive. If you feel as though you’re always giving in the relationship and never getting very much back, it’s important to look at that and ask yourself why. A few books that can be helpful are Stop Walking on Eggshells, by Paul Mason and Randy Kreger, and¶ Coming Home to Passion, by Ruth Cohn. I also find a lot of couples like Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver, although that book is more general in its audience.

The hope is that both of you can cope with stress and an effective, healthy way and thus truly enjoy your relationship. A relationship should be mutually beneficial, warm, and loving. If yours is not, consider getting some help.

Psychiatrists Versus Psychologists


There’s a lot of confusion about what psychiatrists and what psychologists do. In the beginning of our profession, there was no distinction, really, because psychiatry was invented by a medical doctor, Sigmund Freud. As the years have worn on, however, the functions and duties have become separate. I would like to help clarify some of the differences.

Psychiatrists

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialized training in psychiatry, namely treatment of diseases of the mind. Some psychiatrists still spend time talking to their patients at length about life’s problems and how to cope with them better. However, for whatever reason, they have a lot less time now, especially since managed care has become such a prevalent force in the mental health field. Unfortunately, their time has become more and more valuable and a lot of times they are in a hurry to treat as many people as possible. At is not their fault; it’s just how it is and a lot of communities. As a result, people sometimes go to psychiatrists and feel offended and hurt that the psychiatrist can’t spend a lot of time listening to their problems. This is unfortunate, because sometimes people didn’t want medication in the first place and were hoping to be heard and understood. This doesn’t mean that psychiatrists can hear and understand people, just that there focuses mostly on how the person is doing physically with their mental health condition. Psychiatrists spend most of the time evaluating the symptoms presented to them and how medication can address so symptoms. They can be true lifesavers if a person has a mental health condition that lends itself to medication. For instance, severe depression and bipolar disorder often require medication in order for the person to fully heal. Similarly, psychotic disorders like Schizophrenia require medication in order to have a productive, happy life.

Psychologists

Psychologists are experts in psychology. There are many different types. For instance, forensic psychologists work in the law and criminal justice capacities. They do evaluations, psychological testing, and write reports about their findings, as well as testify in court cases. Health psychologists specialize in helping people with medical conditions and do research on different topics, such as the role of stress and different diseases on mental processes. Clinical psychologists treat emotional and psychological illness by using psychotherapy and often work in conjunction with psychiatrists. This is what I do mostly, and I am very grateful to have the ability to collaborate with medical professionals when there are complex cases of mental disturbance. Not everyone who sees a psychologist needs medication or wants medication; some want to try psychotherapy before resorting to medication, and women who are breast-feeding often want to wait until they are no longer breast-feeding to try medication. I respect the desires and needs of the patient, that in cases where severe mental illness is present, I strongly recommend that people at least be evaluated by a psychiatrist. There are also things that people can do to help themselves feel better that don’t involve medication or talk therapy, and I encourage people to take care themselves as much is possible in order to be empowered and have a full, healthy life. For example, exercise can be and honestly helpful for depression and anxiety. Taking medication is not incompatible with exercise, meditation, yoga, good nutrition, or any other non-pharmacological interventions. If you choose to take the herbs or supplements, however you should check to make sure they don’t interfere with whatever medication you’re taking, whether it be psychiatric meds or medications for physical illness.

I hope this clears up some of the common misconceptions about what I do versus what a psychiatrist does. We still have a long way to educate the general public about how each can help people with emotional and psychiatric illness. However, hopefully this is a step in the right direction.

Us and Them


human family.


It’s very easy to get caught up and hating people who have heard us. The natural tendency is to either fight the person or avoid them, and this is what the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous systems set us up to do. It makes sense in terms of survival, especially when we were much more vulnerable and society was a lot less sophisticated. We also developed a sense of “us versus them” that helped distinguish people who are part of your hunting tribe or clan in prehistoric times, from people who were possibly a threat or from a competing tribe. However, in this increasingly small world of ours, I don’t think we have the luxury of adhering to this knee-jerk reaction to people who are different from us.

If you ever observe very young children, they have very polarized views as they learn how to distinguish themselves from other people. At around two or three, they start to say things like “that’s mine!” And “no!” This is perfectly natural for that age and it helps us draw boundaries before our brains are more sophisticated. Our parents, if they’re doing their job well, help us learn how to smooth out the harsh edges of these strong declarations. They help us learn that we have to share and that we have to think about other people’s feelings when we speak our minds. Some people are able to make the transition into more sophisticated ways of thinking and interacting, while others, sadly, don’t. It’s natural to have strong preferences and to want to make your life comfortable for yourself based on those preferences and desires, what isn’t healthy is expecting that everyone else would here to those preferences and that the people who don’t are against you.

I see a lot of families where one person in the family is different somehow from others, in either the parents, siblings, or spouses can’t understand why that person is acting differently. If the person is acting differently is being destructive or inconsiderate of other people, then there is good reason to speak up about it. However, sometimes people are shamed just for being different in temperament, lifestyle choice, personality, or something they can’t help. This is very unfortunate because then that person feels outcast from the very people with whom they’re supposed to be able to be comfortable. When I work with such families, I try to help people understand that while you might not like the behavior of the person with whom you live, that doesn’t mean that the whole person is damaged, tainted or wrong. You can address the behavior you don’t like without shaming the person are making them feel unloved.

Similarly, I would argue that all of us on the planet are in some way related to each other. Were all sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and so on. What would it be like if we were able to differences with respect, dignity, and curiosity rather than hatred, separatism, and shaming? Certainly, there are behaviors that are violent, exploitive, and hurtful; I don’t condone such behavior and think we should do everything in our power to eradicate such behavior. But if we don’t approach it with curiosity, we don’t know why it’s happening and we can address it effectively. I believe it’s possible to use our more advanced parts of our brain, like our prefrontal cortex, to reason, use language, and remain open to many possibilities. When we get caught up in the emotional parts of our brains and stick with the binary us versus them mentality, we miss the boat in many ways. We don’t get a chance to understand why people commit violence, why people exploit each other, and what can be done to change that. Who hasn’t made mistakes in their lives and then things they later regret? Who hasn’t heard someone inadvertently or on purpose in their lives? If we of all made mistakes, should we all be bitterly condemned and outcast from society? Worse yet, should we all be treated like dangerous criminals? I am not naïve enough to think that there isn’t a need for prisons and punishment; I do believe, however, that we need more tools in our toolbox to address behavior that we find objectionable.

So the next time you have a strong reaction to another person or their behavior, you might want to consider where they’re coming from and what might be motivating it other than “evil” or “stupidity.” Remember that the person might be doing their best and may need more skills and more knowledge in order to act in a way that’s more considerate and kind to others.

Loss of innocence


Childhood sexual abuse is hard to cope with, but it’s better dealt with while the child is young than when the experience has a chance to infiltrate the personality.


Sexual abuse, especially in childhood, is one of the hardest experiences I have helped people resolve. It is not always as brutal and acute as physical abuse or an isolated rape incident; in some cases people can be led to believe that what’s happening to them is normal and fine. I’ve heard a lot of people say that what bothers them most is not the sex act itself, although that is often disturbing (especially if it happened to them as children). It is the inappropriateness of the touch or sexual attention that bothers them, haunts them to the core.

I have seen mothers who have been sexually abused themselves as children become hypersensitive to any adult touching their children, even if it is not with sexual intent and is objectively appropriate. I have also seen the opposite extreme. Some parents thing that because what happened seemed “normal” to them, they disbelieve their children when the children tell them about being abused. Or they think the child is doing it to seek attention. I’m sure there are some children who do lie about such a serious matter, but I think that far more often, the child is telling the truth and the abuse goes unreported because they are afraid of getting the perpetrator in trouble. It is especially difficult for some parents to believe when the perpetrator is their own husband, wife, or romantic partner. There are also people who distrust the governmental agencies to whom they would report such incidents. I can understand that, and I don’t pretend that child protective agencies or the police always handle these matters well. However, they are still there to protect children from abuse and neglect, and if the abuse continues unabated it can have lifelong, damaging consequences.

Children need to be able to trust their environments and their caretakers to take appropriate action when they tell their parents they’ve been touched inappropriately. It wouldn’t kill us as a society to take them seriously until the facts have proven that they are not telling the truth. By their very nature, children don’t have the resources and awareness to protect themselves. We need to be in tune with our children to know when something is off with their behavior. We don’t need to necessarily jump to the conclusion that they’ve been sexually assaulted, but we do need to protect their innocence for as long as we can. If you think your child has been touched inappropriately, you can get them help: proper medical attention; psychotherapy; and legal and physical protection against the perpetrators. Don’t let it become their problem later on in the forms of depression; anxiety; PTSD; dissociation; and other psychological and behavioral problems.

The Stigma of Mental Illness


I’ve heard many stories of people feeling ashamed of themselves for having a mental health condition that makes it hard for them to relate to others and/or cope with stress. I am saddened by this because I don’t think there is any need to feel ashamed of having a mental disorder. In fact, 9% of American adults have felt depressed at some point of their lives and 3.4% of Americans suffer from Major Depressive Disorder, according to CDC. The CDC also states that Forty million Americans suffer from anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, many people use the term “crazy”, “insane”, “wacko”, “psycho” and “bipolar” to describe people’s undesirable behavior. This adds to the stigma and if you find yourself using such derogatory language, I recommend your using other words to say that the behavior is strange or upsetting. Of course, we have all probably said something unkind like that, and we can’t do anything about the past other than to decide that it wasn’t helpful behavior and that we can change it starting now.

If you suffer from a mental disorder, I hope that you consider that these people are often speaking out of hate and/or ignorance. Sometimes people are not necessarily hateful, but misguided in their statements. If someone who is not your psychotherapist or psychiatrist advises you to quit taking medication and/or psychotherapy, I hope you discuss it with your qualified medical professional first before taking the word of someone who may not know from whence they speak. Also, realize that most psychiatric medication is not something you get “hooked on” (aside from a class of anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines), and that taking it doesn’t make a person “weak” or “a druggie.” Religious leaders who say that all you need is God, not medical treatment for your disorder, are also to be regarded with suspicion (in my opinion).

If you think the person who is saying unwise, unkind things to you will listen to you and take responsibility for what they’re doing, you can point out to them that their behavior is hurtful and that you’d prefer that they stop. Or, if you think they can’t be influenced in a positive direction or you’ve tried numerous times to let them know you don’t find their comments helpful, you can avoid contact with them or change the subject. The bottom line is that it’s your life, your decision, and your wellness that are most important to you. I hope that you don’t care so much what other people think about you that you avoid having a rich, full life with socialization and enjoyment among other people because of this stigma. You deserve to enjoy your life just as much as anyone else, regardless of what diagnostic label may have been assigned to you. I want you to feel comfortable knowing that we all have our unique challenges in life, and no one challenge is better or more important than any other challenge.

One organization that has done tremendous good in educating and advocating for people with mental illness is National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI). I encourage you to contact them for more information and to see what programs they have that could be of use to you. There are also support groups for family members of mental illness, because mental illness can affect the whole family. NAMI’s website is http://www.nami.org/Find-Your-Local-NAMI.

If you need help healing from the stigma of mental illness, I hope you contact me at 661-233-6771. We can get through this, and many other difficult situations, together.

Pathological Parenting — Is There Hope?


Some of us were lucky and really had good mothers and fathers, or at least good enough mothers and fathers. As a trauma therapist, I see more than my fair share of people who didn’t get so lucky, and some of us got more unlucky than others still. The good news is, however, that the effects of having negative parenting can be overcome, and our senses of self can be restored through a number of means.

First blessing that we have is the power to observe the things we say to ourselves that we picked up from our environment. Through the help of the connections between the limbic system (the emotional parts of our brains), our prefrontal cortices and the language part of our brains (Broca’s area), we can reflect on our inner dialogue and identify what is helpful versus what is harmful to us. Sometimes we need another person’s perspective to do that, because we grew up thinking of ourselves a certain way so what seems normal to us is appalling to another person who wasn’t raised similarly. But if we leave room to pay attention, we can identify which thoughts make us feel sad, angry, shameful or frightened, and which ones make us feel calm and happy. We can use our own body’s responses to help us do that — when I think this, my shoulders cave and I slouch, or my eyes hurt like they want to cry. What really helps us do this reflection is regular quiet time spent going inward, observing our mental process without judgment or caring what other people think. You are your own audience, and you get to bear witness to your own experience. Some call it meditation; other people can achieve this through prayer. I don’t think it matters how you get there, as long as you can observe without judgment.

The second blessing is what is called “neural plasticity.” This means that the brain changes and adapts depending on our experiences and interactions within ourselves and with our environments. According to Louis Cozolino, PhD, “genetic expression is controlled by experiences throughout life, and …changes in the environment, both good and bad, continue to have positive and negative effects on us” (p. 324, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy, 2nd Ed.). This is great news because even if we didn’t get everything we needed psychologically from our caretakers as infants and children, we are not lost and broken forever. Our neurons (nerve cells) can fire differently when we’re in a more positive, supportive environment, and even the organization of brain structures can change in response to skill learning. Even if you had very negative relationships with other people in your family or with your peers, there is hope to have more satisfying, mutually beneficial interactions with your current peers and important people in your life.

I find both these notions to be very encouraging and try to share these ideas with clients because sometimes people have been talking to themselves negatively for so long, they are convinced they cannot change. It takes work, but that notion of being broken doesn’t have to be the case. I’m sure there are some people whose parenting was so pathological that it would take a monumental effort to change their self-talk and behavior, but for most of us, I think that we can overcome that type of history. It takes hope, and it also takes help. But at least our brains can be cooperative allies in the process.

Sleep and PTSD


Recently, there has been interesting research about the role of safety signals in PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). It seems that when people are able to learn about safety and create that in their minds, they are able to get more REM sleep which helps them heal from the traumatic event. This is an article that contains a synopsis of that research:
http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/08/31/new-research-shows-sleep-critical-to-effective-ptsd-treatment/74318.html

One of the ways that I like to create safety for clients is with EMDR. I do what is called “resource” work with “installing” a safe person and a safe place by using bilateral stimulation (eyes going back and forth, alternate tones in the ears, or tapping the hands alternately) while the client thinks about a safe person and/or safe place. What is meant by “safe?” I usually encourage the person to think about a place where nothing bad has ever happened to you, and that makes you feel calm, happy and peaceful while you think about it. Similarly, for the safe person, it should be someone who has not had much conflict with you and who is dependably considerate of your needs and desires, hopefully even helpful to you. I have had many people tell me that this helps them feel calmer and less anxious or stressed when they practice thinking about the safe place or person regularly. Sometimes when we have less stress, it makes sleep that much easier, whether or not we have post-traumatic stress.

Free-Floating Anxiety


Many people come to me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is characterized by worrying about a whole host of things, almost all the time. It interferes with sleep, digestion, happiness and over-all well being. The curious thing is that once they think one problem that causes anxiety is solved, they can’t leave it well enough alone. Their thinking is dominated by “what if” thinking, as in “what if the choice I made is not the right one? What if the solution I chose doesn’t work?” This can be very exasperating not only to the person who has anxiety, but also for those around him or her. The person with anxiety often seeks reassurance compulsively from the people closest to them, and often to dissatisfied by the reassurances. This can cause problems in relationships, which further adds to the list of stressors that lead to anxiety.

The interesting thing about the anxiety is that even if you have conclusive evidence that the problem you’re worried about is solved, then like a flock of birds seeking a different resting place, the anxiety flies off to a different destination and then bingo! There’s your new problem to solve and fret over. Again, it’s frustrating for the person with anxiety because he or she thought that by being diligent and fretting over that one item, their anxiety would go away, but alas, it doesn’t. I often ask people in this predicament how worrying solves their problem at hand. They often say that it makes them alert to the loose ends that could fall by the wayside. I see the logic to that, but often anxiety and stress at this level does the opposite of what people want it to do. Instead of being a progenitor of proactive problem solving, it paralyzes them (boy, are there enough p words in that sentence?). There is such a thing as eustress, which is enough stress or tension to be alert and proactive, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed, helpless and scared.

Think about times that you’ve had an issue and solved it without feeling anxiety. Now ask yourself, did the problem get solved as well as it does when you felt anxious solving a problem? Does anxiety actually do what you want it to, or is it just flooding your body and mind with stress chemicals and putting more mileage on your heart? Is it a worthwhile use of your energy, or could you perhaps be just as productive without it? Ask yourself this every time you start feeling anxious about an issue or problem. How is this energy serving me? Is it accomplishing what I want it to do? Can I solve the problem without it? Let this be your mantra and see whether it can help you declare independence from worry. Worry, like angry expressions and sadness, are not just emotional expressions — they are habits. Like any habit, you need to be mindful and dedicated to break yourself of it. Are you willing to try this today?