Monday, December 31, 2012

It Is Well With My Soul....

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Today, as I sang this song in church, I thought about the story behind the words I was singing.  Starting out life in the Baptist church, I remember singing this song many times over the course of my life and it has become one of my favorites.  However, as a child, it was hard to understand the implications of what Mr. Spafford was trying to convey as he created this wonderful hymn.

This beautiful hymn was penned by an attorney who lived in the mid 1800s, whose name was Horatio Spafford.  Mr. Spafford was a friend of D.L. Moody and lived in the upper Midwest.  Although you would think of an attorney as being quite successful, his story is one of great tragedy and loss.  (If you would like to read his story, please click here.)  Even so, amidst the losses that he experienced, he was able to write words such as is well, it is well, with my soul. 

For much of the church service I was deep in thought, the Pastor's words floating in and out of the thoughts that were inundating my mind.  Over this last year, it seems as though there have been a lot of losses in my own life....difficult losses that have pierced my heart so deeply that I have begun to wonder just how long these feelings were going to persist; if I could handle any more saddness.  In the midst of these losses, I found myself becoming impatient with my life's circumstances, wanting desperately to change them.  My heart has longed for a life with less responsibility, less stress and more joy.  I have wanted to just go play, have lunch with my friends and do what "I" want to do without having to make sure certain conditions are in place that would allow me to spend a few hours here and there.  Unfortunately, these things have seemed very unattainable.

As the service progressed, the Pastor began to speak about a new born child who had been born to a young couple in our congregation.  Due to complications, she had a difficult birth, wasn't breathing and had to be rushed to the hospital in a town close by for special medical attention.  It is possible that she might have brain damage due to the lack of oxygen.  As we prayed for this child, I couldn't help but think about how tragic it would be for a child to be brought into this world and from the start not be healthy.  I felt such sadness for this family. 

The more I thought about this, my thoughts turned to my husband of 35 years, whose history I know all too well.  It seemed as though, like this little baby, he had a hard time from the beginning of his life too.   Although he was a healthy, normal baby, he was born to parents who were quite dysfunctional.  His mother and father divorced shortly after he was born.  At around a year of age, she voluntarily gave custody to his dad who was an alcoholic.  There was terrible and tragic abuse that happened until he was placed in a children's home when he was 9, due to the death of his grandmother.  Unfortunately the abuse just took a different form and by the time he was 17, he was given the choice of going to jail for committing a crime or joining the Navy.  His Navy record was less than sterling and after he got out, he spent some time in jail and most of the rest of his life in a bottle.  In 2001, he suffered a massive stroke and lost the use of half his body as well as his speech. 

That was 11 years ago.  After my father passed away this year, I really lost all motivation to continue as a care giver on any level.  It has been a struggle to keep my head in the game and I have been trying to find ways to shed the responsibility, yet in my heart knowing that just because I am having a hard time, that alone is no reason for my husband to have to pay for that.  My family, his family and many friends would support me if I chose to place him in a care facility....yet I don't find comfort in that solution either. It isn't the right thing to do. These thoughts, although not central to what was going on in my mind, were having a significant impact on what I had carried with me to church this morning.

The things that I was hearing as I sat in the pew this morning began to form around a different context.  I took a look at my husband through the lens of a counselor, rather than the lens of a wife.  Again, as it has in the past, compassion began to soften the resentment that had built up and I saw that precious, scared, abused little boy who grew up into a scared, young sailor performing body bag detail aboard ship off the coast of Viet Nam.  He was never diagnosed with PTSD but he surely has struggled with it most of his life; trying very hard to cope with the demons in his mind that have caused him so much pain for so many years.  My heart broke for him, again, and I understood, again, that it is my privilege to be able to take care of him.  It is something that came as part of the package when I prayed that the Lord would spare his life the day the stroke came.  Although I did not fully understand what I was asking for at the time, over the years it has become clear and it is my life now.  It is also his life, which is a very precious commodity...something to be respected and cared for. 

Today the Pastor began to talk about things that made sense to me...things that I have even told myself....and then there was that hymn.  As much as I have experienced loss this year, I began to think about how many things I have to be thankful for. Those things are real too.  Thinking about all that the Lord has done for me and my family in the middle of such great loss, a feeling of gratefulness started to infiltrate my heart and mind; making me realize how much this life is a matter of perspective.  It seems as though sometimes reality is made up of what we are focusing on and if our focus is the negative, then life is going to look pretty bad.  On the other hand, if we are intent on seeing a more positive perspective, reality tends to take on a better outlook.

How could Mr. Spafford say it is well with my soul?  Perhaps it is because he was looking at life through the lens of blessing rather than through the lens of loss and bitterness. The story of his life doesn't talk about what those blessings might be, but there must have been something that was bringing him comfort in the midst of his tragedy.   Looking back, much of the distress that I experienced over the last 18 months came from fearing things that could have happened but didn't happen, threats that seemed so real but never materialized.  Some of the things I was distressed about did happen, but they have since proven to be less of an impact than I thought they were going to be.  So much stress, so much wasted energy.  Hindsight is 20/20 they say.......I concur. 

A year ago today, I was standing beside my father's bedside in the Emergency Room at KMC waiting for the doctor to confirm he had a broken hip.  That event began a 2.5 month ordeal that ended in his death. It was not the result that I had ever imagined and I often have vehemently referred to it as a "damned tragedy".  I miss him and life will always be different without him here.  However I don't think that he would have wanted me to live my life focusing on his loss rather than the blessing that he brought into my life. 

Last little rose
Image by Lorenzoclick via Flickr
Will what happened today as I sat listening to my Pastor carry forward through the new year?  I can't answer that with a lot of certainty.  However, today as I allowed the Lord to show me a different perspective, I was able to raise my face heavenward and begin to understand -

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

What Is Your Inner Dialogue Producing?

Inner dialogue is comprised of the constant stream of thoughts that goes through our mind on a daily basis.  It is how we think, what we think and what we tell ourselves about ourselves 24 hours a day.  Our inner dialogue has a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves, how high our confidence level is, how anxious we are or how hopeful we are.  That constant stream of thought often goes by unnoticed to the conscious mind, but it is highly noticeable to the unconscious mind.  It is always there, either encouraging us or discouraging us. 

I have a friend who decided to evaluate his inner dialogue, so over a specified period of time, he wrote down as much of what he thought as possible.  When he reviewed what he had written down, he was amazed at how negative it was.  Interestingly enough, my friend is a pretty positive person so this was surprising.  As a result, he decided to change the negativity and found it required some concentrated discipline.  Our thought processes are habitual and they come from pretty deep seated belief systems.  There is a portion of scripture that says, "out of the treasure of the heart, the mouth speaks."  What this means is, the way we speak has a lot to do with the way we think. 


Because I work with many clients who have anxiety issues, I often ask them to evaluate what is going through their minds when they get anxious.  Invariably, they report that their minds start racing with questions.....what if I don't get this done..... what if this happens..... what if that happens... how can I possibly... what will I do if....why did that can I prevent it from happening again...oh I'm so stupid....why did I do that...and on and on.  This kind of thought racing produces anxiety if you let your mind run away with you.  My best advice to these individuals is.....wait for it.....ANSWER THE QUESTIONS.  Yes, that's right, answer the questions.  What WILL happen if you don't get your project done, why DID you do that, what will you do if this DOES happen again?  If a person will take the time to answer the questions that are causing the anxiety, it moves them to a pro-active state.  They begin goal setting rather than sitting back, letting life happen to them. 

If you move into being pro-active, you move from a defensive position to an offensive position.  You begin to set goals, plan out what you will do in certain situations and that makes you feel more powerful.  Chip Conley, in his book Emotional Equations gives us a formula for anxiety.  It is: 
uncertainty x powerlessness = anxiety
If you remember your high school algebra when dealing with equations, changing one side of the equation also changes the other side of the equation.  As we look at this particular equation, answering the questions that race through our minds eliminates the uncertainty portion of the equation, which also tends to effect the level of powerlessness that we feel in any given situation.  Therefore, it changes the result, as in bringing down or eliminating the anxiety level. 
Self - Worth
Another way our inner dialogue can affect us is how our thoughts turn inward and either criticize or encourage us personally.  Imagine how your child would react if s/he consistently heard from you how they can't do anything right, how worthless they are, how stupid they are, how they don't measure up, how they will never amount to anything etc.  What kind of attitude do you believe that child would have by the time they reached adulthood?  Probably not very positive.  Yet, if your own thoughts consistently degrade and demean yourself personally, how do you think you will escape the same fate?  You listen to your thoughts 24/7/365 - there isn't any way you won't be effected by that amount of negativity. 
The field of Positive Psychology has proven that negativity steals from us.  Studies show that happy people, more positive people are more productive, healthier and live longer.  Proverbs 16:24 says, "pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones."  Sweetness to the soul would mean more peace and less anxiety, health to the bones refers to our physical health.  Our bones are the strength of our body, they also produce blood cells that circulate and nourish our bodies.  Imagine....thinking and speaking positively makes us happy and healthy!  How simple!
Evaluate what you are telling yourself, about yourself consistently.  Do you often call yourself stupid?  Do harshly criticize yourself?  If you do, it is time to re-evaluate.  It is time to develop a larger vocabulary and a more realistic response to yourself.  If you are just repeating what your parents told you all your life, you may want to evaluate your life and decide if you want to keep agreeing with their assessment.  More than likely it wasn't accurate to begin with, so why keep agreeing with it?  This requires discipline, but once you start to change that inner habit, you will find that it becomes easier over time. 
Challenge your thoughts as you are aware of them.  Determine whether they are accurate or if there may be another way of looking at yourself and at life.  Most of the time people are not stupid, they are either misinformed or uninformed.  If you tell yourself that you don't do things well, a better response might be to take a class or practice the behavior more so that you get better at what you want to do. You might also begin to evaluate if what you are doing is within your skill set.  Some people just aren't good at certain things.  Rather than criticize yourself for not doing something well, decide whether you have the skill set to accomplish it at all.  If it is important to you to become skilled at whatever you are doing, then improve your skills.  If it isn't, just admit it is something you are not good at and move on.  Social skills are the same way.  They can be practiced just like behavioral skills can be practiced.  If you don't have effective social skills, you may want to read some books or get around people who have good social skills and observe them.  If you find yourself without friends, or not invited to social events then you may need to evaluate what is going on and fix that, rather than remaining hyper-critical of yourself. 
We must begin to look at our quality of life and determine how we want to live.  Life is too short not to do that.  If you want a more peaceful existence, it is important to look at how you are thinking.  Do you focus more on what is true, or do you focus on things that are not true?  Do you tend to spend your life thinking about what is honorable and just or do you tend to focus on the injustices of the world and the negative things that people do?  Do you have a clean thought life or are you more prone to think thoughts that are less pure?  Is your speech gracious and praiseworthy or do you tend to use more colorful and negative language?  Your speech will tend to belie your thought processes.  Therefore, as you pay attention to your thoughts, also pay attention to your conversation.  What do you talk about?  Are you filled with fear and anxiety or do you tend to look at solutions to solve problems?  The more positive you are, the better effect that will have on your opinion of yourself and others. 
Now, here is the disclaimer -  In saying that we must become more positive, I don't mean to imply that we never look at the negative.  We must be wise when it comes to life and wisdom says that it is important to view ourselves, our neighbors and life with reality.  Negative thoughts and actions tend to cause something called "catastrophizing".  When we catastrophize, we blow things out of proportion.  We say, "everything is horrible" or "I can never please my spouse" or "he just totally destroyed me".  If we look at these situations in truth and reality, we can see that using extreme speech like always, never, everything and nothing....or...extreme words like horrible, total destruction etc. are not good descriptors of our situations.  This kind of language doesn't allow for change and it labels people or situations with inaccurate labels.  Living in truth means changing our language as well as the measures we use to describe ourselves and the situations we find ourselves in.  It is only when we accurately describe the problem that we can find the appropriate solutions. 
Determine today that you will begin to challenge and eradicate the inner critic.  Begin to look at your life in terms of what you do well, what strengths you have and what goes right.  Yes, it may be difficult because negative thought patterns may be very deeply ingrained.  However, you can just have to discipline yourself to do it.  The benefit of being positive is that people tend to like being around positive and encouraging people.  You may find that your social life improves, you think of yourself in a more positive and realistic light, and your family is happier.  Those are worthy goals to pursue.
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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Assertiveness - Is It The Missing Link for Anger Problems?

English: A metaphorical visualization of the w...
Interestingly enough, individuals who suffer from anxiety due to being in social situations, or have anxiety about standing up to difficult people may have something in common with individuals who have anger issues.  Looking at the big picture, both types of responses can tend to be inappropriate if used in the majority of life situations.  The largest portion of people we will interact with or situations that we find ourselves in, can be handled by using assertiveness skills. 

On the behavioral spectrum, people who lack confidence for whatever reason are at the opposite end of the spectrum from individuals who seem to be over confident.  The under confident tend to chronically respond to people and situations by withdrawing, not speaking up, not expressing their opinions, being overly nice, or not asking for what they want.  On the over confident end of the spectrum we find individuals who chronically use intimidation, anger or bullying to get what they want in life. When we analyze both sets of issues, it seems obvious that the individuals lacking in confidence need to be strengthened and the angry folks need to dial back the intensity of their responses to a less intense level.  

Cheerfully FirmAssertiveness, the topic of today's post,  is in the middle of the spectrum and is really what each of these groups need to learn and practice as they communicate with others. Although not as apparent, assertiveness skills are missing in both of these groups.  On the one end of the spectrum, we might find  the less confident person came from a family where conflict was avoided rather than dealt with.  In this situation, the child observing conflict being avoided or even not seen at all, will leave the child with little modeling of how to handle a conflict.  They will not learn how to be assertive, or how to negotiate through a conflict if they have never seen parents or important authority figures in their lives model that type of behavior.  This leaves them with an assertiveness deficit which looks like low confidence levels.  It can result in a low level of confidence, but in many situations, it is a skill deficit because they don't know what to do or how to respond. 

On the other hand, individuals who are over aggressive in their responses, either by getting angry, intimidating with their size or voice volume as well as those who may manipulate for what they need, also lack assertiveness skills.  These individuals have never learned what the appropriate level of response is; that there is a difference between assertiveness and aggression.  This group tends to respond with a high level of aggression or none at all in the situations they deal with.   For this group of individuals, it is essential for them to be able to determine in any given situation what level of response is appropriate. 

For those who lack self-confidence, it is a common experience to be treated in a condesending manner, or even directly put down and not be able to think of how to respond until later.  Some of that is due to the physical shut down of the higher functions in the brain that control thought processes, which come when we get anxious or fearful.  As anxiety increases, we move toward the fight, flight or freeze response and our thought processes become very primitive.  This is why it is so important to role play certain scenarios and train how to respond in those situations.  If you have never practiced being assertive, you won't learn it by being in the situation.  Determine what you might say if someone puts you down by saying a derogatory remark and then passing it off as humor.  For example, inappropriate co-worker might say to you, "That was a great answer, for someone your age...ha, ha, ha."  Someone with a low confidence level might just smile and not say anything.  However an appropriate answer might be to look at the co-worker and say, "I'm confused by what you just said.  What was your point?"  This can be said very kindly and in a non-threatening manner, but it makes the point that the comment was inappropriate and makes the person say what they meant to say directly.

Two people in a heated argument about religion...Overly aggressive individuals must learn the appropriate assertiveness skills that will help them accomplish what they want to accomplish, but not in an indirect or inappropriate way.  These individuals must step back and determine what level of strength the situation might require.  For example, if a family member continues to pry into private or personal matters, rather than responding aggressively, determine what level of strength would set the appropriate boundary.  Anger would be inappropriate in this situation.  However, using some assertiveness skills like lowering your tone of voice, looking the person in the eye and stating that, "I prefer not to talk about this right now", or "perhaps I haven't made myself clear that I'd rather not discuss this topic", or asking, "Why is it that you want to know these things" might be a less aggressive way to set the boundary. 

Assertiveness, like diplomacy, is an art in being able to communicate.  Once we have a few of the skills in our relationship tool box, we can negotiate many of the difficult situations that we come across quite well.  However, there may still be the person or the situation that we choose to avoid, just because it makes good sense to do so.  Depending on how assertive we become, we can still be thought of as aggressive if we use our assertiveness skills in an overbearing or inconsiderate way.  It is always good to take stock of any situation we find ourselves in and determine how best to respond.  Assertiveness gives us the tools to be able to ask for what we want, give our opinions without being offensive and stand up for ourselves when we believe we are being misjudged.  These tools do not give us the right to mistreat or be inconsiderate of anyone we are relating with. 

If you believe learning assertiveness skills would be of benefit to you, you might consider finding a group counseling situation that is working on these issues, an individual counselor or if you are more of a self help type person, there are many good books and resources available on the topic.  Your Perfect Right is a good resource, in my opinion.  It gets a little bogged down in the details, but the author has gone to great lengths to give people step by step information in how to develop assertiveness skills in their lives.  The Assertiveness Workbook is also a good resource if you want to practice your skills.

As you seek to improve your communication skills, expect that you will relapse from time to time.  The way you have communicated all your life is somewhat of a default setting and it will take some time to change.  Look at these small setbacks as learning experiences and decide what you could have done differently to effect a different outcome.  Every time you do something different, it will take you to a different outcome.  Decide through the process what works and what doesn't.  You will soon be able to negotiate difficult circumstances with confidence and the right level of assertiveness.
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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Understanding Grief and its Effects on the Body

Cover of "Molecules of Emotion"
Cover of Molecules of Emotion
Grief is a series of many thoughts and emotions in response to a loss. The extent the heart is connected to what is lost, affects how much grief is experienced. For individuals who are unable to adjust to a loss and move on, it may be necessary to look deeper to see what might be contributing to the prolonged grief. Unresolved past emotions may be triggered by a current loss. In such cases, the resolution of the current grief may be inhibited by a previous decision to either not think or not feel.
In her book, “Molecules of Emotion”, Dr. Candace Pert presents evidence that the experience of emotions are the result of neuropeptides released from the hypothalamus in response to a thought. Each emotion has a specific chemical makeup that flows throughout the body and is picked up by receptor sites in various organs. Each emotion will effect a unique combination of organs in a specific way, and hopefully this will trigger a resolving thought. Dr. Scott Walker has developed a process he calls Neural Emotional Technique which has helped to pinpoint where in the body and what organs are usually effected by each of the different emotions. For purposes of this article, we will choose the three emotions we have talked about here; fear, grief and bitterness. Dr. Walker says that fear is an emotion that effects the kidneys and grief effects the lungs. Scripture leads us to believe that bitterness effects the bones.
Two difficulties can occur in the processing of grief. If one refuses to think about the loss, unresolved energy remains in the brain, resulting in mental distress. Secondly, if the emotions are internalized, repressed, denied or transposed, rather than embraced and expressed, the chemistry of the emotion remains in the organ, and the natural mental processes do not continue to resolution. Since each organ shares a neural pathway with a specific set of muscles, the unresolved emotion will continue to affect both the organ function and the related muscle groups resulting in predictable disorders and pains. However, when the emotion is expressed, the thought processes continue toward resolution causing the release of new emotional chemistry that resolves and replaces the previous set. If each successive new emotion is embraced and expressed, this process finally results in the flow of the vital feel-good, unifying chemicals of a state of joy that facilitate both our biology and behavior.
A scriptural example of this connection between thought, emotion and body function is revealed in Psalm 73. Asaph is envying the apparent ease of the wicked, (vs. 3-12). In verses 13 and 14 he declares his judgment against his efforts for purity of heart and innocence. However, he then realizes the foolishness of that judgment and turns to God for His perspective. Verses 21-22 state, “When my heart was embittered, and I was pierced within, then I was senseless and ignorant ”. In the Hebrew, “within” is the word “Kilyah” which means kidneys. When he held onto bitterness in his heart, his kidneys were afflicted and his thinking was blocked. The conclusion of the Psalm in combination with verses 18 through 20 present a godly resolution of his dilemma. We can see this kind of connection when we look at individuals who have certain kinds of kidney failure. As the kidneys are unable to do their job filtering toxins from the body, the toxicity builds and thought processes begin to erode. In advanced stages people become delusional, they may lose their ability to comprehend time and their understanding of simple every day life declines.
Many children are told, “Big boys don’t cry”, or “You’re just too emotional”. These events can result in inner determinations of the heart not to express emotion. Therefore, as loss is experienced, a person may repress the grief and choose to just move on. Also, the processing of overwhelming experiences, especially in childhood, can be so traumatic that the subconscious defensive systems of the mind will shut it down until a time when the person has the capacity to handle the emotion. A person may also stop the processing of grief because they judge a particular thought or emotion within the process as unacceptable. If any of these patterns of repression continue through life, the mental tension and physical chemistry of grief will build. Each successive event can then trigger fresh waves of the chemistry of the unresolved previous events along with those appropriate to the present situation. As a result, they may experience excessive, inappropriate stages, or prolonged grief along with physical symptoms of pain in their bodies. This extreme and confusing response often leads to further repression.
It may be helpful to reconsider other losses in the life and explore how grief was handled in those situations. When a previous event is recalled, it should be meaningful information, but if a wave of emotional chemistry is released it indicates the emotions have not been allowed to resolve. Emotions, when allowed to come forward can resolve when we cry, as we talk and share with another safe person or during the night when we experience REM sleep and begin to dream. Dreams are a human being's way of working through the "baggage" of the day. If we don't dream, we don't process as effectively.
As suppressed emotion is faced, understand that for past experiences, that unresolved chemistry will feel exactly the same. However the good news is that if you are feeling emotion that was suppressed during childhood, what felt overwhelming at the time, may not be as overwhelming as an adult. Allow yourself to feel, work through the emotions and resolve the chemistry...that is the path to good emotional health.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

OMG! I've been diagnosed with.....

My wife reading in bed. And it wasn't because ...
Responses to a diagnosis, whether it is a mental disorder or a physical one can range from great fear to anger to denial. Most of the time we can't figure out why it has happened, why it would happen to us and aren't familiar with what it is.

Physical disorders can be very scary. How many times in your lifetime have you gone to the doctor and heard you just needed an antibiotic, you had the flu or a rash or needed something to help with indigestion? Then you have an annual physical, a blood test and the doctor calls back saying they need you to come in right away. You hear you have diabetes or heart disease, high cholesterol or some other frightening disease that you never thought you would hear. Your mind starts racing, you think, "This can't be happening to me!" Then, once it sinks in, you start learning everything you can about it, believing that it will be relatively easy to overcome and you'll be back to normal in no time. However after a short time you come to realize that overcoming 40 or 50 years of bad habits isn't so easy. Then you get discouraged and realize that if you don't make the changes needed to turn this thing around, your life may be at stake. Determination takes over and you begin again.

Sometimes as we are researching what to do, we are successful in finding alternative treatments that work, that are more compatible with our value systems. If we have caught the disease in time, it may be much more simple to turn around than if we have denied our symptoms and the disease has progressed.  Hope returns and step by step we can address the problem that has overtaken us physically.

Mental disorders are not the same, although many people are diagnosed every day with depression, bi-polar disorder or different forms of personality disorders.  The problem is that mental disorders come with more of a stigma. Once the person is diagnosed, although perhaps feeling relieved to know exactly what is going on, they then have to deal with learning about it, how to manage it and often the reaction from family and friends when they become aware of the diagnosis. This kind of diagnosis is just as scary, but can come with a distinct weight and path that needs to be walked out individually.

There are support groups for some of the more well known mental health issues such as depression and grief, but many of the more severe disorders don't lend themselves to support groups as well. Usually by the time someone has been diagnosed, they have alienated family and friends, finding themselves with little to no support.

As we age, the probability that we are going to hear something like this in our own lives becomes more real. How will we deal with it? How will those around us that we care about be affected?  How will we be able to handle a negative response.  These too become individual responses. As much as possible, attitude plays a huge part in whether we are successful in facing a distressing diagnosis or not. Joy, laughter, love and encouragement are just as essential in the path back to good health as medical science.

Although we may not realize it, unaddressed emotion can effect us mentally as well as physically. It is my humble opinion that in the journey of life, the body is the last voice to speak when we continue to ignore our feelings and stuff our emotional responses to the problems we face in life. Feelings that are ignored don't die.  They come up when we are exposed to similar events, people, sights or smells.  These are called emotional triggers and are there due to the chemistry of the unresolved emotion existing within the body.  If we continue to ignore these emotions, they can develop into fears, social withdrawal, discouragement, depression or eating disorders. If we let them go long enough, the body becomes endangered.

For example, given enough time, the body will begin to interpret a consistent emotion of anger as a wound. The normal response to a wound is to release fibrin, the wound clots, scar tissue forms and the wound begins to heal. So what happens when there is no wound? The body releases that fibrin and it continues to build up and circulate in the blood stream. Clots can form and the person may be more susceptible to a stroke than s/he would have been if that emotion had been dealt with early on in life. Additionally, anything we do to turn the body more acidic will leave us more vulnerable to disease.

Bob HopeCover of Bob Hope
So what can we do? The most obvious answer is to deal with our emotions as quickly as we are ready too.  According to the field of positive psychology, laughter and happiness is one of the easier ways to address our attitudes as a part of good self care. I am old enough to remember some of the comedians of early television like George Burns, Sid Caesar, Bob Hope and others and have observed that these individuals lived well into their 90s, in relatively good health. Why? I would suggest that it is because they lived a life where they incorporated humor. They saw the funny side of life and they were able to laugh at themselves. If we look into scripture, we find verses that confirm this thought as well.  For example...."a merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones".

It has also been shown in various studies that happiness helps to innoculate us to the hardships of life.  It provides us with a strength of spirit that can sustain us during the hard times.  Some things that can increase our happiness quotient revolve around developing a grateful heart.  We can do that by keeping a gratitude diary where every day we write down three things we are grateful for.  As we write in the diary, it is important to feel that gratefulness, just for a few minutes each day.  Another strategy is to begin doing things each day that make us happy.  Sometimes it can be a hobby or participating in activities that we are passionate about.  Focusing on others, random acts of kindness, and telling the important people in our lives how much they mean to us can begin to turn our hearts to a more positive place.  For couples, a wonderful idea can be found in keeping a journal that each person writes in.  One day, one spouse writes something about the other spouse that blesses them and leaves the journal in a predetermined place for the spouse to find.  The next day, the other spouse writes something in the journal that blesses them about the first spouse and returns it to the same place.  This technique serves to encourage and bless both spouses as it focuses attention for each one on the positive attributes and actions of the other.  Siblings and families can adapt this technique as well. 

Human beings are very complex so please understand I am not suggesting that this is the only way to stay healthy. However, in the long term, it does have its benefits. My encouragement to you would be to deal with your emotional baggage as soon as possible. Forgive where you need to, try to find the humor in things and enjoy the life that you have been given.  Life is too short to address it any other way, but unfortunately we let too much time pass by before we truly understand that concept.

Kriss Mitchell is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Post Falls, Idaho. For more information, please visit
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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Social Anxiety....Does It Happen to You?

Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety (Photo credit: HckySo)
Anxiety in and around social situations can be characterized as Social Phobia, Social Anxiety Disorder, Performance Anxiety and in some cases Generalized Anxiety depending on the level of stress it produces.  According to the DSM IV-TR, Social Phobia is a "marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment may occur".  In these situations, an immediate sense of anxiety comes up and may lead into a panic attack.  Adults seem to understand that their response to these situations is unreasonable, however children may not.  Many times, the person with Social Phobia will avoid situations that cause them the anxiety, or if they can't get out of the situation it is endured with much dread.  Individuals should only be diagnosed with Social Phobia if the fear and avoidance significantly interferes with their daily life. 

English: An anxious person
English: An anxious person (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Social Phobia most often begins in the mid-teens, "sometimes emergying out of a childhood history of social inhibition or shyness", according to the DSM-IV-TR.  How long it lasts is dependent on the individual, what interventions they may use and may come and go with the stresses and demands of life.  Most commonly, it is a life long circumstance. 

Social Anxiety can also create other conditions that interfere with personal self worth and value.  If a child has been in situations where chronic rejection by their peers has been a source of anxiety, their view of themselves can become damaged.  This creates great anxiety as they are injected into social situations or performance situations.  In dysfunctional families where parents have not mirrored acceptance and approval, low self-esteem develops and accompanies the child into social situations outside the home where they wonder if they are good enough or will be approved of or accepted.
English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Generalized Anxiety is more pervasive,  characterized when a person has anxiety most all the time, regardless of the specific situations they find themselves in.  Social Phobia is very much targeted to social situations and performance situations.  It is worth noting children with Separation Anxiety are usually comfortable in their own homes with people they know, where children with Social Phobia display anxiety even when the social situations they fear occur at home.

For most of us, Social Anxiety can be tied to a lack of social skills that are easily learned and implemented with practice.  For example, how many of you have felt a twinge of fear when you go into a situation where you don't know the other people there?  How do you feel when going to a high school reunion, especially the 10th reunion?  If you have ever been a part of a sales team or an MLM organization, how do you feel when asked to make "cold calls"?  All these situations can make us question our worth.  We ask ourselves, "what will I say, what do I say after I say hello, how do I get people to talk to me, what if I end up alone in the corner...that would be embarrassing, what if I do something stupid?"  These are very common fears to individuals who suffer from Social Anxiety.  Low self esteem can be a part of these concerns, but for those who just don't have good social skills, a few good conversation starters in the social tool bag can alleviate a lot of stress.

Here is a list of a few questions that you can learn.  When social situations come your way, all you need to do is decide which of these questions would be appropriate to the situation and you are on your way:

Conversation starters with someone you don't know:
  • How was your day?
  • What do you do for a living? followed by What do you like about your job?
  • Do you have a family?
  • Where do you live? followed by What do you like best about that area?
  • That's a beautiful (necklace, pair of shoes, tie, dress, suit etc.).  Where did you get it?
It is always best to ask "open-ended" questions.  These are questions which don't require a yes or no answer.  Yes and no answers bring conversations to a brisk halt and then require you to ask another question in order to get the conversation going again.  That can be one of your sources of stress.  It is also good to know that in natural conversation, the conversation will lag after about seven sentences so knowing that, you can be prepared with another question.

Remember, you are not interrogating the other person, but simply looking for things to talk about and trying to get to know them better.  Leave room for the other person to respond. When they do, listen to what they are saying.  In their conversation you will find other things to talk about.  Conversations are like ripples in a pond.  The more you converse, the more you learn about each other, and the more fodder for conversation you have to choose from. 

Here are other common questions that you can ask, once the conversation gets going:
  • Where did you grow up?
  • Do you have any brothers or sisters?
  • What do you like to do to relax?
  • Do you like sports?
  • Who is your favorite athlete?
  • Do you like to travel?
  • What was your worst vacation experience?
  • What is your favorite food?
  • What is your favorite TV show?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  • What is the best piece of advice you've received?
  • Do you own a pet?
  • Do you prefer cats or dogs?  Why?
  • Do you like to live in the city or the country?
  • Tell me about your first car.
  • If you could have any super power, what would it be?
 In closing, it would be good to note some common mistakes that people make in conversations:
  1. Don't be rude.  Good manners are a must no matter what social situation we might find ourselves in.  Please, thank you and excuse me, go a long way in keeping a person interested in social exchanges with you.
  2. Listen.  Actually listen to what the other person is saying.  Sometimes it is tempting to think about how we are going to respond, but that often distracts us from what the person is saying.  Listening to the other person makes them feel valued in the conversation.
  3. Be sure not to monopolize the conversation.  Conversations are two-way streets. 
  4. Keep competition out of the conversation.  When you first meet someone, this is not the time to let them know you are an expert on their lives or their favorite topics.  Conversations can lead to friendships and virtually no one wants to be in a relationship with a know-it-all.
  5. Stand a comfortable distance from the person so as not to invade their personal space.  Strangers standing to close to us results in anxiety so it is always good to notice the adjustments that others are making in their physical presence when we are conversing with them. 
  6. Face the person you are having a conversation with and look them in the eye, most of the time.  Sometimes people are uncomfortable with eye contact, so look away from time to time when you are speaking, but always come back to looking at the person when they are speaking.  It shows them that you are interested in what they are saying.
  7. Don't be negative or engage in gossip about someone else.  Negativity can shut down a conversation very quickly.  Keep your conversation upbeat, positive and if possible, humorous. 
  8. Humor - the rule of thumb is if people don't laugh, its probably not funny.  Negative or self-depricating humor is often a turn off and makes others uncomfortable.
  9. Let other people have their opinions.  When getting to know another person, it is not the time to correct their beliefs or perceptions.
  10. Talk with people, not at them.  If people feel they are just your audience, they will leave the conversation quickly. 
  11. Include facial expressions and acknowledgments in your conversation.  Smile at the person when they are talking.  Use "ah-ha", "interesting", "I didn't know that" or just simply nod your head in agreement.  These types of acknowledgments let the other person know you are engaged in the conversation and listening to what they are saying.
  12. Don't interrupt or cut the person you are speaking with off.  We all get excited when we are speaking with someone who shares our views or that we strongly agree with or disagree with.  However, interrupting is an invalidating behavior and says to the other person that we only care about what we are saying rather than what they are saying. 
Knowing these simple social skills as well as having a few good questions on hand to keep the conversation going will soon allow you to be a whiz in social situations.  In order to perfect your skills, practice on family and friends.  Sometimes it helps to let them know that you are trying to add a few new tools to your social tool belt.  That way if you seem different, they will be in on what you are trying to achieve.  However, that is up to you.  The goal is to have fun!

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

De-Stress By Getting Practical

Day 77 - NaNoWriMo Day 16
Day 77 - NaNoWriMo Day 16 (Photo credit: Sashala)
Although a certain amount of stress in our lives can be helpful, chronic stress is detrimental to our health and our emotional well being.  As stress builds, once it reaches a certain level it can turn into anxiety disorders, which as I mentioned last week, are the number one mental health issue in our population. 

I thought that this week I might bring up some easy and practical things that can de-stress our daily lives.  Besides being busy, and looking to reduce the major stress producing activities from the daily routine, there are other, simple things that can be done.

  1. Get up 15 minutes earlier in the morning.  Having an extra 15 minutes can take the rush out of getting ready and set the tone of your day to a more calm pace.  Going a bit further, getting things ready the night before can also give us more time in the morning.  If the family eats breakfast together, setting the table the night before could shave a few minutes off the daily routine.  Making lunch and setting out your clothes the night before can also be a de-stressor.
  2. Make duplicates of all your keys.  If you happen to need a spare set, you can rest assured that with a quick phone call, you can be back in your car or in your home within minutes.  If you want to set a spare set of keys outside there are key safes that can be mounted to your door frame or you can bury a spare set of keys somewhere in your garden.  Although tempting, it isn't the safest thing to put spare keys somewhere on the outside of your car or in a "rock" in the garden.  Most criminals know all the places to look.
  3. Do NOTHING, which after being done, leads you to tell a lie.  Having to keep track of things you have said which are not true creates an undue amount of stress.  It is much easier to remember the truth.
  4. If you have clothes that don't fit, either get new ones or have them fixed.  There are few things that create stress over long periods of time than wearing clothing or shoes that don't fit right.
  5. Take stock of anything in your life that might be a consistent aggrivation.  Windshield wipers, stacks of laundry that need to be done, doors that catch and don't work smoothly, appliances that don't work right etc.  Get these things fixed or purchase new ones!
  6. Plan ahead - don't wait until you are down to your last egg, your last drop of shampoo, or your last gallon of gas before you replenish your supply.  Doing that creates stress. 
  7. Live in the moment.  When you are doing a task, think about what you are doing rather than doing the task and then thinking about the next thing.  If you are wholly present with the people you are with, that not only is a more calming strategy, it also improves relationships.
  8. Take time every day for yourself.  Make sure you have lunch, rather than working through.  Take some time to have peace and quiet, pray or spend time doing things that you enjoy.
  9. Every day, perform a random act of kindness.
  10. Take a bath.  The warm water can be a source of relaxation.
  11. When feeling stressed, most people tend to breathe in short, shallow breathes.  When you breathe like this, stale air is not expelled, oxidation of the tissues is incomplete and muscle tension frequently results.  Check your breathing throughout the day and before, during and after high-pressure situations.  If you find your stomach muscles are knotted and your breathing is shallow, relax all your muscles and take several, deep, slow breaths.
  12. Say NO.  If you don't have time or if you are uninterested in a project, just say no.
  13. Schedule a realistic day.  Avoid the tendency to schedule back-to-back appointments; allow time between appointments for a breathing spell. 
  14. Schedule unpleasant tasks for early in the day.  Get them done and the rest of the day will be more peaceful.
  15. Ask for help when you need it, delegate when you can.  As my mother used to say, many hands make light work.
  16. Stop being late!  Allow 15 minutes of extra time to get to your appointments.  You will find it will be less stressful and it is very considerate of the person you have scheduled the appointment with.
  17. Practice good self care.  Take vacations...if you can get away once a quarter that would be optimum.  Do something different on your weekends than what you normally do during the week.  The change of pace helps prevent burnout.  Preserve at least one day of rest during the week.  Your body needs the down time to recover.
  18. Don't take your iPad to bed.  Computer screens are stimulating, stimulation makes for problems in getting and staying asleep.  Lack of sleep creates stress.
  19. Take stock of any stimulants you are ingesting and eliminate or restrict them. 
  20. If you are worrying about something, take steps to solve the problem.  Being in a chronic state of worry adds to the stress load.  If you are procrastinating about something, get it done.  Procrastination is stressful.
If you will take some time to assess where the stress is coming from in your life and take steps to make some simple changes, you may find yourself in a better place. 
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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Anxiety and You

Anxiety disorders are now the most common mental health problem in the US. They affect 18% of the population according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.  Any of us who know more than a half dozen people can attest to that.  18% of the population means roughly 1 out of every 5 people is an anxiety sufferer.
These disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events. Many people have never suffered from anxiety until they go through a severe loss, a traumatic event or something big that is out of their control.  In my opinion, anxiety comes from the conscious understanding that we are not as safe, in control or invincible as we thought we were.  These experiences are different for each person, but the idea of being unsafe for one reason or another is difficult for most people to live with.
Being very treatable, the difficulty is finding where the anxiety is coming from.  We often look for life events or individual circumstances to give us a clue.  However, understanding anxiety, it is hard to determine which comes first, the chicken or the egg; life events or brain chemistry. Life events can have a significant effect on emotions, which in turn can change brain chemistry after long periods of time. Chronic life events like abuse, thoughts of low self worth or low self esteem can also have an effect on how we think.   Emotions are constructed from brain chemistry and when certain brain chemicals show up in significant amounts in the system, the body will adapt by creating more receptor sites for that chemistry. It is the same adaptation that happens with substance addiction. When looking at it from that context, we can say that we become "addicted" to our brain chemistry; addicted to anger, anxiety, depression etc.

Our brain chemistry, or neurotransmitter function significantly affects us over all. For example, low levels of Dopamine can result in feeling more cravings. Low levels of Norepinephrine can result in a lack of energy, lack of focus and lack of motivation. Anxiety can be the result of high levels of the same neurotransmitter, or high levels of Glutamate, PEA, GABA, Glycine or Taurine. Severe anxiety can also be the result of low levels of Taurine so you can see how changes in our brain chemistry can affect us negatively. When our chemistry is out of balance, it will then be difficult to be positive or calm. It can also affect our sleep, which then can affect short term memory, concentration and even can be a factor in weight gain.

Some of our neuro-transmitters stimulate and some calm the brain and the body, so it is understandable that a good balance between them will be beneficial in maintaining stability in our emotional life.

Often, clients tell me that it is just easier to ignore the emotions that remind them of difficult times in their lives. These emotions are unpleasant and often disrupt the feeling of "normal" that is more desirable. Although this may be a good short term strategy, emotions don't go away. That chemistry remains in the body and can be a source of disease and discontent in our lives. Dr. A.F Beddoe states that 80% of all disease begins with unresolved emotion.
Scripture says quite a bit about how to deal with our bodies when it comes to anxiety and stress.  Just to mention a few verses:  Ephesians 4:26 says, "In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,".  Could it be that in the context of health, this means in some form we are sinning against ourselves?  Anger let go without resolution can cause long term damage to our mental health and our physical bodies.   
Philippians 4:8 comes at it from the opposite perspective, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things."  Developing these kinds of thoughts in our lives on a consistent basis has the effect of keeping us in good mental health.  If we cultivate thoughts that have peace and calm as a basis, we will also be peaceful and calm.  This attitude can help keep our neural net in good shape.  Gratefulness and thankfulness are also positive attitudes to cultivate in our lives.  They

Dealing with our emotional life daily is helpful as a wellness strategy. Getting enough rest, working through traumatic experiences, prac-ticing prayer or meditation, practicing forgiveness and developing an attitude of gratefulness all help stabilize our emotional life. Although medications have their place in treatment for anxiety, more natural approaches are recommended to start. Good emotional hygiene is something to practice daily.

Natural Remedies for Anxiety

One of the most effective treatments for anxiety is deep breathing or square breathing techniques. Although it sounds too simple to be true, breathing in a deep, slow measured way does affect our heart rhythm which then sends a message to the brain and the rest of the body to slow down; become more relaxed.

Square breathing is accomplished by breathing in, holding, breathing out, and holding to a count of 3, 4 or 5 depending on how deeply you can breathe at the time. If that is too difficult, just breathing in slowly and deeply, then breathing out slowly over a period of 5+ minutes will help as well. Shallow and rapid breathing exaserbates the anxiety and will lead into a panic attack.

Another technique is to think of something calming. As part of a prescribed treatment, counselors help their clients to develop a memory or a picture in their minds that is very calming and relaxing. When faced with anxiety, this "mini mental vacation" can distract enough to be able to help the person calm down and remain in a relaxed state.

Meditation and/or prayer can also be a most effective way for the person to experience a sense of peace and calm. Practicing this for 15-20 minutes a day will help the mind and body to become more familiar with the state of calm that is desired. This practice can enhance the production of neuro-transmitters that are beneficial to the calm state and over time, bring us back into balance.

EMDR therapy is a trauma therapy which can help a person process through the traumatic memory and resolve the brain chemistry which gets triggered and dumped into the system, causing an anxiety reaction. It works in conjunction with the body's own processing system, rapid eye movement. Simply put, REM sleep is when we process through our day. Our emotions and things that are disturbing to us are brought up and resolved during this stage of sleep.

If traumatic events cannot be processed, the chemistry remains intact and becomes triggered through events, sensations, people, circumstances or any reminder of the event. EMDR allows that chemistry to process and thus takes the emotional charge off the memories that are disturbing to us.

EMDR also helps to change belief systems. Many of us have limiting beliefs that we just can't seem to get beyond. This therapy has proven beneficial when individuals are trying to improve their outlook on life or just change some long held beliefs that seem to hold them hostage.

Milk peptides have been found to be a very effective deterent to anxiety conditions. The study was conducted for 30 consecutive days showing reduced stress reactivity. This was assessed by monitoring a subject's
blood pressure response to a mental stress test. Results similar to the study have been seen at LWCC. Additionally, milk peptides do not compress the range of emotion as some drugs can.

Other articles of interest:

Making a Case for Peace
Being Calm Has Its Advantages
Emotions, DNA and Physical Well Being

Related Websites

Living Well Counseling and Consulting
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