An Inconvenient Truth

inconvenient truthThanks to Al Gore, we have a phrase embedded in the collective consciousness which embodies the act of acknowledging a reality that is painful, unfortunate, or unpleasant. Mr. Gore was, of course, referring to climate change, and how the impact that continuing to deny the science would have consequences far greater than anyone can imagine. The movie of the same name was back in 2006 ~ how right he was. Climate change has been global, devastating, and relentless. As people continue to argue about the science, the world burns.

So it is with the consequences of childhood trauma. Developmental Trauma is an inconvenient truth.

It is Child and Youth Mental Health Day.

This is important ~ there’s not enough recognition of the mental health issues our children face, there’s not enough resources when we DO acknowledge the need for mental health services, and we don’t do enough to prevent the single most significant factor in child and youth mental health.

Episodic, persistent, chronic, or unremitting trauma in childhood (usually in the family of origin, but for many children, in the care of various versions of child welfare, social services, government ministries, or private agencies) has profoundly negative and lifelong consequences. As the work of Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris and Dr. Vincent Felitti have demonstrated, adverse events in childhood are not something children ‘get over.’ Experiencing the degree of chronic stress that trauma induces for an extended period of time fries the nervous system, inhibits brain development, and causes the formation of coping mechanisms or safety-making behaviours which carry on into adulthood.

Child and youth mental health is negatively impacted by these experiences, manifesting as anxiety, depression, suicidality, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, behavioural problems, academic failure, and ever earlier addictions to name only a few ways.

The key to making it different? One caring adult. 

Nearly all of the effects of childhood trauma are mitigated by one safe, secure attachment to an adult through those formative years. A ‘Cookie Person.’ That one adult who listens, takes the time to notice ~ really notice ~ where a child or adolescent is at mentally, emotionally, socially, and physically.  Literally (and metaphorically) having milk and cookies with a child or youth who needs to talk. To be heard. To be safe ~ to know where ‘safe’ can be found.

As this infographic from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows, 64% of American adults have 1 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and there is a 95% likelihood that additional types of trauma accompany even 1 ACE. This is soooooo disturbing.

Infographic: The Truth About ACEs

How many of our child & youth mental health issues could be prevented if the experience of trauma were routinely assessed of children seeing paediatricians, nurse-practitioners, emergency room personnel, school counsellors, or accessing mental health services?  As Dr. Burke-Harris and her staff proved over the course of twenty years, routinely assessing children, educating parents, creating community resources, and when necessary, intervening for the sake of safety in a timely fashion can have a HUGE impact on mental wellness and health outcomes across the lifespan.

Our children are the future of the humanity.  Educate yourself on childhood trauma. Get involved in your community – here in Kelowna, Canadian Mental Health Association, The Foundry, Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, coaching amateur sports leagues, volunteering at the local school, getting to know your neighbours, and educating yourself are just a few of the ways you can make a difference.

Be that Cookie Person.

Additional resources:

https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/collections/aces.html

The Deepest Well (Nadine Burke Harris)

https://centerforyouthwellness.org/our-story/

https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html

CMHA Kelowna

The Foundry Kelowna

 

Therapists Can’t Fix Clients

If your therapist is giving you advice, you need a new therapist. Giving advice is not counselling. It’s not therapeutic, and it doesn’t help you, the client. After almost 30 years in counselling, though, this is probably the single most common request from my clients. “Tell me what you would do.” Or, “Just tell me what the right answer is here.”

I usually ask some variation of, “What do you need to hear?” Or, “Why is it important what I would do?” Or, “What do you think is the thing to do?” Only in very rare instances do my clients not know (or don’t at least have a really good idea) what is best for them. What they really want, is to hear the solution from me. There’s lots of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that if I do offer solutions or advice, it’s not therapy.

Angry client

If a client thinks s/he is actually paying me for advice, or to offer solutions, then anger is often the response. And clients do get angry. Sometimes, “enraged” is a better adjective. One of my clients became so irate that I wouldn’t tell him which option I thought was his best choice, that he stood up, shouted at me that I was “useless,” and then stepped over me on his way out the door. (At 6’7” this was not difficult for him.) I was so stunned I didn’t even think to duck.

As a new therapist, I was pretty shaky, but after debriefing with my clinical supervisor, I knew two things – I am not responsible to solve my client’s problems, and, never sit between a client and the door. I’ve not always remembered not to take responsibility for my client’s problem, but I have always remembered not to get between my clients and the door.

Today is National Psychotherapy Day.  Alexandra Stevens, via Elephant Journal, offers some reasons why clients become angry with their therapists. Worth the read.

Feeling Chuffed

cover_issue_1_en_usThis week, after a year’s worth of work (and even longer time discussing) an article I’ve been working on with some really stellar professionals, has been published. Though I write much and am regularly published online and in magazines, this is different.

Collaboration with some very stellar peeps in the psych field produced a wonderful finished piece, much better than I could ever have done on my own. Thanks to Louise Lambert, Ed., for the idea, the encouragement, and the persistence in shepherding this idea from mere discussion to a published article.

mejpp-article-professional-associations-in-the-gcc

Finding Social Balance

In 2016, “social life” means something entirely different than it did in 1976 when my social life was the most important thing going ~ or so I thought at that age. Being very connected was important to me, and I tended my friendships with some care. Back then, the individuals whom I considered as friends were a bit more changeable than now, but the number hasn’t really fluctuated much over all those years. I was (and am) friendly to everyone, but intimate with only a few.

referralSocial media has simply expanded that circle. Today, I have 450+ friends on Facebook (all of whom but one I know in person), multiple followers on other social media platforms, but still only 3 or 4 truly intimate friendships. The rest of my social circle consists of people in varying degrees of closeness and interaction. Different from my youth, a few of those really close, intimate friends now reside primarily in my Facebook feed.

Long distance relationships in the past were hampered by the conditions under which they existed; snail mail, telephone calls, and occasional visits. In 1976 when I was corresponding with a friend living in Alaska, the wait between letters was weeks (hard to fathom, I know) and the friendship developed its own rhythm, defined by the medium. Not so today. My close friendships formed while in Kuwait continue through the various forms of social media even though most of those friends are now scattered across the globe. Immediate (“Posted 0 minutes ago”) news, live interactions, video feeds, IM, Hangouts, shares, and other instant communication feed and maintain the connection. While I miss the enjoyment of being in their physical presence, the friendships continue to ebb & flow in real time, as they did while we were together in the same geographical location. These are friendships which began as three-dimensional; the migration to digital friendship was an easy one.

Not so much for those friendships that begin in digital media. There are significant differences between in-person and online friendships, and when an individual does not make this distinction, problems may arise. The various forms of socialising that are possible on the Internet have given rise to an often false sense of being connected; fostering an intimacy that is arguably of a different quality than is possible in three-dimensions. Social media and instant, long distance communication are here to stay and as a consequence, for the sake of our mental and emotional health, we need to learn to integrate this relational reality into our social lives in a healthy and beneficial way.

This month’s bazaar Kuwait column is all about balance. (as a pdf: all-about-balance-october)

And for another perspective, Mary McGillivray & Mirel Gonzalez share the history of the development of their online friendship.

Are you contagious?

We have known for hundreds of years through behavioural observation that emotions appear to be contagious, but these conclusions were only based on patterns of behaviour.

Recently, that’s been changing. With the advent of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), scientists have been able to see how the brain lights up in response to emotional stimuli, positive or negative, and in the process, have been able to observe changes in the brain’s response to external emotional influence.

happysadbrainactivity_400x200

There are two primary processes at work – focus, and scan, which have very different functions. When we are focused on problem solving, the “Task Positive Network” which is part of Executive Function, engages, and our brain process is almost completely cognitive. In other words, we’re thinking. The brain suppresses other “unnecessary” functions in favour of quick processing, creativity, and hyper-focus. In other words, when this Task Positive Network is engaged, the brain blocks out social/emotional processing. When interacting with people, we use a different part of the brain, the Default Mode Network. We scan; looking for verbal and non-verbal cues that will allow us to gauge the other’s emotional state. We have the ability to “tune in” to people, offering an appropriate social and emotional response to what we pick up.

happy-sad-facesPractically speaking, we have an unconscious tendency to end up mirroring the mood of the dominant individual in our immediate sphere. Apparently, these changes happen at the speed of light very rapidly and mostly at a subconscious at the neural synapse level. We aren’t aware of the change in frequency in brain activity that happens neurologically as we make the shift. If you think about it, you can probably come up with an example of a time when you felt that emotional shift – from positive to negative (or vice versa) after an encounter with someone. We even have language that expresses that experience; “He was a real downer.” “I always feel good after I’ve had coffee with her.” We might not be able to point to a specific action the other person did, nevertheless we experience an internal shift in feeling.

This is where mindfulness – as opposed to mindlessness – becomes key.  Mindfulness is so much more than just “paying attention.” It is being aware of both the external circumstances and, simultaneously, of our own internal landscape.

body-map-of-emotions

Why does any of this matter? Because when we live mindlessly, we are at the emotional mercy of the strongest mood we encounter. It is also a sad truth that we are more likely to be swayed by a negative mood than a positive one. Our mood might pick up a little if we’re with a particularly sunny friend, but we are much more likely to feel flattened by someone’s downer mood. Now neuroscience has begun to compile a body of data indicating that living on autopilot can mean life is much more difficult than it has to be.

Here are some things that help us manage our own emotions in any context:

  1. Selfcare: When we are hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or sick, we are much more easily influenced by the moods of others. At the same time, we are also more likely to be negative to begin with if we have not had enough sleep, or not pursued some emotionally and psychologically renewing activity recently. Take care of yourself, first. Check out Selfcare on Pinterest
  2. Learn & Practice mindfulness: Don’t live on autopilot. Pay attention to your own inner responses to your external environment. Question your responses by choosing to tune in to the automatic self talk that is constantly running in the background of the mind. It’s there for everyone – I mean everyone – and those repetitious, under-the-radar thoughts compel a reaction before we have a chance to choose a response. Mindfulness is a cultivated habit.
  3. Journal: In some form, process what’s actually IN your head. I often suggest “morning pages” to my clients (Check out The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron for instructions) but any form of reflection will work. Do a vlog like Jake Sully in Avatar; look up art journaling on Pinterest and try it; take five minutes a day to record an audio file on your smartphone. Think over the day, and work through the times/occasions when your inner landscape was impacted by the external situation. Do this consistently for at least 30 days, then go back and review. You will be surprised at what you learn about yourself. Journaling ideas
  4. Focus on “Positive Emotional Attractors” – this is not just some sort of spizzy, think-yourself-happy exercise. Research supports the contention that focusing on strengths (as opposed to weaknesses), practicing empathy, and consciously monitoring and managing stress levels has a beneficial payoff through increased creativity, internal resilience, and self-motivation. Cultivating gratitude (as a bonus, check out www.unstuck.com – a gloriously helpful place to explore. There’s even an app)

When we focus on what is going right, mindfully cultivate a habit of gratitude, and look for ways to compassionately connect with our fellow human beings, life seems easier …and we all want that.

2015-0820-attitudes-are-contagious