Write Your Way to Healing

When many people think of writing, they unfortunately often think of their dreaded high school English class or the research paper they suffered through in college.

But, what if writing can be used to transform your life? What if writing can heal?

Journaling is effective, low cost and efficient. It is a way to understand yourself, a way to hold a conversation with yourself, a way to gain clarity and a way to work through grief, set goals and access your creative nature. Here are four journaling strategies to change your life:

1. Write a letter you will never send. Letter writing has long been used in counseling as a way to say the things you have never said to those who have hurt you. Use your journal to write a letter to a parent, a lover, a sibling, an abuser, and say everything you have ever wanted to say. Don’t edit yourself. This letter is not meant to be sent, instead it is meant to help you release long-held anger, grief, fear and sadness.

After you write the letter, you may choose to read it to a safe person who can witness your experience and feelings. Or, you may decide to burn it, rip it to shreds or plant it in the ground with a new tree or rose bush sending its roots down through your words, allowing the pain in your letter to be transformed into beauty.

2. Ask the kid. Another technique helps us get in touch with the child part of ourselves. It works like this: Using your dominate hand, write a question, you think your child-self might have insight about. Use your non-dominate hand to write a response. For more information about this kind of journaling check out the work of Lucia Capacchione

3. Get to sleep. When you wake up at two in morning with your mind in a swirl and anxiety clutching your gut, use journaling to do a data dump. Keep a pad and pen by the bed, turn on a soft light and spill out everything you are thinking. Don’t edit yourself. Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation, or if any of it makes sense. Just dump it on the page. There is something almost magical about externalizing your fears. Try it. It works.

4. Rev up creativity. In Julia Camaron’s book, The Artist’s Way, she recommends a simple strategy to help increase creativity and reduce blocks. The process includes three, long-hand pages of writing every morning. Julia says these pages can or even should be whiny and full of mundane concerns. They are not literature. I used this process for several years myself and found it to be every bit as helpful as Camaron claims. Hear her talk about this process.

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Do You Long to Write?

Writing has been one of the ways I’ve made meaning, and sometimes beauty, from the things that have happened in my life. For many years I belonged to a women’s writing group where every week we would read our work, talk about writing and share our lives. Before that, I was fortunate to have skilled and passionate writing teachers who helped me learn how to put words together in ways that were pleasing and powerful. Earlier still, my mother bred writing into me by reading to me, sometimes the same book I loved over and over again, taking me to plays and writing herself, every day, in journals I wouldn’t read until years after her death.

Writing has been healing, revelatory, satisfying, frustrating, lonely, and yet it connected me, to my readers and loved ones. But most of all, it has connected me to myself, helped me understand what I had been through and sometimes seemed to help me breathe through what I was still going through. Somehow through writing I have been able to bear more than I ever imagined. Through deaths, illness, separation, loss, renewal, hope and joy I have found a way to hold it all more gently by transmuting the pain into something I find beautiful, into a story, a poem or even a blog post.

Now, after allowing writing to fall away for a time as I returned to school for a masters in counseling, began a practice and shored up my love relationship with new vigor and insight, now, I am ready once again to embrace writing beyond these pages, and you, dear reader are invited to join me.

A new writer’s group is forming to accommodate writers of all levels and genres. It will meet once a month for three hours and offer the chance to receive feedback on your work in a supportive and committed atmosphere. There is a limit of ten participants and the first meeting will be held next Sunday, January 17th at 6pm in Medford. Contact me for more information or to sign up. There is no charge. 541-621-6739 lois@lifeinbloomcounseling.com

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Blaze a New Trail in the New Year: Ways to Change Your Life that Really Work

This is the season when many of us are taking stock of our lives. The Christmas holiday and another year is behind us and the new year looms with all its promise and possibility. On New Year’s we may make resolutions, to lose weight, stop drinking, follow a budget, spend less time watching television and more time learning Spanish, focus more on our primary relationship, communicate more effectively or look for a better job. But most of us will fail in our attempt to let go of old habits and begin new ones. Why is it so hard to change and why don’t New Year’s resolutions work? It all starts in the brain.

Anything that we have done over and over again has created a strong neuropathway. The saying goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” What this means is that over time our habits have created powerful connections between neurons in the brain that make doing what we have always done more comfortable, easier, than doing something different.

It is as if we have taken a walk in the woods every day and stayed to the same trail. Eventually that path has become very easy to follow. There are no branches or brambles in the way and no grass growing where we walk. The path is clear and well-trodden. Changing our behavior and thus our neuropathways is, at first, like bushwhacking a new trail through the forest. There is brush to clear and weeds to pull and if we aren’t consistent the branches and weeds will quickly grow back.

So, changing behavior is a process. This why resolutions don’t work. Making a decision to change and expecting yourself to just wake up the next day and do things differently is denying the powerful pull of the well-worn trail in the brain.

So what does work if you want to change behavior?

1. Taking small steps towards a goal works much more effectively than an all or nothing approach. This is called shaping. For example, research has shown that a strict diet which totally eliminates certain categories of food almost always fails in the end. After some initial success, we feel deprived and go back to old eating habits. We tell ourselves, “Well I’ve already blown it, so what does it matter?” A more effective approach is to gradually reduce portion size and keep healthy, low calorie foods within easy reach and high calorie foods in a place that requires some effort to access.

Simply taking a few potato chips out of the bag to eat, putting them in a small bowl and then returning the bag to a high shelf, can help deter over-doing it. It is like placing a log across the well-worn path in the woods. Yes, we can still scurry over it, but chances are the new path looks easier, so we are more likely to follow it.

2. Research has taught us that what is within easy reach is what we will gravitate to. So, if you want to learn Spanish and watch less TV, hide your remote and put your Spanish text next to the chair you sit down in regularly. If you want to go for a run in the morning, put your running clothes out the night before right beside your bed. Make your new behavior the path of least resistance.

3. Reward yourself. Small rewards can help reinforce behavior. Something as simple as making a check mark on a calendar or crossing something off a list can be rewarding. For dieting and exercise, tools such as My Fitness Pal, an app for smart phones, can also help reward your efforts, by recording what you eat and your activity level. Devices you wear that track number of steps taken throughout the day have also been shown to be helpful in increasing activity levels. Rewards don’t need to be elaborate or expensive, they only need to be consistent and give you a tiny feel good boost of endorphins each time you engage.

4. Get support. It is often easier to accomplish something if you have a buddy doing it with you. Will you cancel if your friend is waiting at the gym to work out? Or, if the teacher you hired has given you Spanish homework, will you be more likely to follow through? If you are like most of us having another person involved will be motivating. Enlist a friend, colleague or family member to be your trail buddy.

5. Don’t give up. Changing behavior takes time and persistence. But the good news is that no matter your age your brain is able to develop new neuropathways that support new ways of being. You can blaze a new trail.

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Holiday Cheer? Coping with Stress and Sadness this Time of Year

There is an old saying that goes something like this, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” No time of year is that more true, than at the holidays.

Everything in the public environment, in the media and in our own history can conspire to create unrealistic and idealistic expectations for the holidays that few of us can possibly live up to. The specter of the perfect family gathered around the perfect tree or holiday table is often in stark contrast with the reality of our own lives where relatives may be absent or dysfunctional. Beautifully wrapped gifts in abundance, Christmas cookies baked with compliant and rosy-cheeked children and sleigh rides through the snow are often either financially or practically impossible.

Instead, the reality is often stress about money, fears about interactions with relatives, melancholy about holidays past when childhood excitement may have made this time of year a joyful anticipation, and sadness when we deeply miss those who are gone from our lives. Wrapping this all up in a neat package of despair can be feelings of failure, and envy towards those who seem to have all these things.

We therapists know that depression and suicidality peaks at this time of year. Not only is it dark and cold outside (which can affect many who are sensitive to these things) but the weight of unmet expectations for ourselves and others, the sadness that arrives when we compare our lives to the lives of our neighbors and friends and characters on TV, all work against us unless we can take hold of our own mind and direct our thoughts and actions more effectively.

But how, in the midst of the holiday frenzy can we possibly do that? Here are some suggestions that might help:

Take a step back. Just because you have always had a big Christmas dinner or purchased presents for everyone in your extended family does not mean you must continue to do so. Examine the traditions you have cultivated and ask yourself honestly if they still fit for you. Are you still able to participate with joy? If so, continue on with abandon. If not, consider scaling back or ending traditions that no longer fit for you, whether due to a change in circumstances such as reduced finances, or a change in values as when purchasing yet more toys or unneeded objects seems like excess. You are allowed to change how you feel and what you do.

Ask for help. Be willing to ask for and accept help with planning and executing holiday celebrations. Many of us feel we must do everything ourselves and make the holiday perfect for our loved ones. Not only is this impossible it is also a recipe for burn out and resentment.

Connect with your reason for the season. Whether you are a religious person or not, re-engaging the meaning holiday celebrations hold for you can create a deeper experience with family and friends. Why do you bother with it all? If there are values at the core of the celebrations for you, how do they play a part in what and how you celebrate? What would it look like to be more aligned with those values?

Stop comparing your insides with other’s outsides. When we drive past a beautiful home, lit with Christmas lights, or see Facebook posts of smiling families gathered around a sparkling tree, it can be understandable to think these people’s lives must be filled with ease. However, what we present to the world through those curated avenues is rarely the whole story. Everyone experiences loss, falls short of their ideals and struggles to make meaning out of difficult situations, which befall us all.

Looking into someone’s life through a small window such as Facebook, we see only the surface of things and cannot know what challenges and pain those people are facing. You know your own story intimately, your self-doubt, self-consciousness, failures, struggles, sadness, illness, family problems. Rest assured that most people have their share of similar issues.

Be here now. Cultivating mindfulness can make any experience easier to both tolerate and/or enjoy. Mindfulness can help us endure anxiety and the pangs of loss. When we bring ourselves into the present moment we let go of past and future and focus our attention on just this moment. What is happening both inside and outside of us is what matters and when we can be in this present place we get to truly be in our lives and with those we care about. Practicing mindfulness is a skill and much of it involves noticing that we have gone into the future or the past and gently bringing ourselves back again and again. Try it. It just may be the best gift you could give yourself.

Let go of expectation. More joy and less misery is possible when we accept what is. It might mean accepting (though not liking) difficult things. Sages throughout the ages have reminded us that life is indeed filled with pain, but suffering is a product of ordinary pain plus resistance to that aspect of life. It is this denial and rejection of a basic element of the human experience (pain and loss) that creates misery. Work towards making peace with what is. This can be a process that lasts a life time, but the holidays and all your days will fall upon you more gently if you can begin.

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Getting Help: It’s Legal, So Now What? Cannabis in the Age of the Corner Pot Store – Part 2

Last week we discussed some of the possible downsides of using Cannabis on a regular basis. If you resonated with any of the concerns offered and would like to quit or reduce use, here are some ideas that could work for you:

Attend a Marijuana Anonymous meeting. In our area there is an in-person meeting held weekly (Wednesdays at 6pm) in Grants Pass at the United Community Church 480 SW I Street (enter the meeting through the rear of the church). A weekly video chat meeting takes place every Monday at 10pm. You can listen and participate in this meeting without being seen. Click here for a link.

Get treatment. Receive evidence based out-patient treatment using a mindfulness and skill-based approach at DBT of Southern Oregon. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) has been shown to be effective at treating many addictions as well as mental illnesses such as Borderline Personality Disorder, depression, anxiety and OCD.

Urge Surf. Practice harm reduction by gradually reducing the amount of Cannabis you use, or eliminate it entirely. Learn about urge surfing and practice it when you feel compelled to smoke. Here is a video that walks you through this technique.

Get to the root of the problem. Use of a substance such as Cannabis can often mask a problem such as depression, unresolved grief, anxiety or chronic pain. Find a counselor and/or physician who can help evaluate the underlying issues and treat them.

Get busy. Finding meaningful ways to fill your time can be a powerful way to move away from any behavior we want to reduce: volunteer, help a neighbor or friend, clean up one small area of your house or one small part of your yard. Do a load of laundry, write an email to an old friend, remember your dreams for the future and take one small step towards them. Take a walk, write, draw, sing, dance. It’s not too late to find purpose in your life.

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It’s Legal, So Now What? Cannabis in the Age of the Corner Pot Store

Like so many things in life Cannabis is a duality. It can be valuable as a tool for healing and pleasure, or a catalyst for aimlessness and mental illness. It can provide an occasional evening of enjoyment with friends, or become a lonely prison that saps motivation, adds to depression and ruins your life. It is useful as a treatment for pain and nausea, and components of it can treat seizure disorders untreatable by other means, and it can also become an addiction fraught with all the hallmarks of despair addiction brings with it.

Yes, Cannabis is many things to many people. And, now that it is legally available to the masses, it is important to have accurate information to guide use or determine abstinence.

The purpose of this post is to raise awareness about the possible negative effects of a drug that we still know too little about, due to draconian federal laws that have hampered scientific research. But there is data out there, much of it from other countries such as Israel and the UK where more inquiry has been supported. So what do we know so far? Here are some of the concerns that are backed up by substantial research:

Cannabis is much stronger these days: Experts say it contains 2-3 times the active agent THC than in times past, (due to a genetic selection process that favors more THC) and creates a more intense, quick acting and long lasting high. It is also more likely, in its current strength, to induce hallucinations, paranoia and other temporary psychotic symptoms. For many people these experiences are short lived. However, Cannabis, like alcohol, has many troubling long-term consequences when it is used regularly and in excess:

Anxiety: Many people use Cannabis to relax. It is true that in small amounts it works. Unfortunately, in higher doses it has the opposite effect, creating often dramatically increased anxiety. In my counseling practice, I have worked with clients who began using Cannabis to ease their nervousness but after a while instead of helping them, their anxious symptoms increased to the point where they can barely drive, interact with people in public or even leave the house. According to much research, this is a common occurrence amongst heavy, long term users of Cannabis.

Thinking and Motivation: We now have considerable evidence too that Cannabis use over a long period of time has a depressant effect and can significantly reduce motivation and cause cognitive deficits. It can also affect memory and the ability to organize, integrate and use information.

Mental Illness: There is more and more research pointing to a strong link between use of Cannabis, (particularly in adolescence) and schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and other psychotic illnesses. The link seems to be “dose related”, in other words the more used the more likely it is to develop such an illness.   Read more about it here.

Problems in Living: In the past it was thought that Cannabis is not addictive. But recent research demonstrates that it is. How do they know? Addiction is present when tolerance develops and withdrawal symptoms appear when use is reduced or ended. (Tolerance is defined as a having to use more and more to get the same effect.) Cannabis withdrawal symptoms include:

• Craving
• Decreased appetite
• Sleep difficulty
• Weight loss
• Aggression or increased irritability
• Restlessness
• Strange dreams

These withdrawal symptoms usually appear about 10 hours after last use and peak at about a week after use is discontinued. Another strong indication of addiction is a compulsion to use, and life being taken over by the need to seek, buy, and use Cannabis, even when these activities are damaging relationships, work, health and well-being.

Cancer and Breathing Problems: If Cannabis is used by inhaling its smoke, some of the same health problems can occur as with cigarette smoking. Like cigarettes, Cannabis is a carbon based substance that when inhaled regularly has the potential to create lung cancer, COPD or other breathing problems. If you are using Cannabis to relieve pain or for another medical problem, consider switching to a topical application or other delivery system. Talk to your health care provider about the safest way to use it.

Join me next week when the topic will be getting help when Cannabis use is a problem.

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Find a Counselor That is Right for You

• Look for a good fit. Many practitioners offer a free 30 minute consultation. Take advantage of this by setting up appointments with two or three different therapists. Meet and talk with them about their approach to counseling and typical length of treatment for your situation. What is their training and experience? What are their strengths? How do they collaborate with others on your health care team?

• Ask lots of questions. For example if you are interested in treatment for anxiety, ask your therapist if they provide an evidence based approach. (This is a treatment that has been researched and shown to be effective.) Ask how much experience and training the therapist has in providing the treatment you are interested in.

• Get recommendations. For example, ask your primary care physician, your chiropractor, family and friends to recommend a counselor. Ask them why they believe in that person’s abilities and how they know about them.

• Confirm eligibility. If you will be using insurance check to make sure the counselor you have chosen can accept your insurance.

• Ask about sliding scale. Many counselors offer a reduced rate to clients paying out of pocket.

• Trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. While it is normal to feel some anxiety when beginning counseling, the counselor’s task is to put you at ease and build trust and rapport. If that isn’t happening consider switching to a different practitioner.

• Advocate for yourself. If you are not getting what you want from counseling but have developed a string relationship with your therapist, ask for what you need. Most counselors will be happy you have spoken up and given them the opportunity to be more effective.

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Why Go to Counseling?

Many people think that you have to be “crazy” or extremely dysfunctional to seek out the services of a mental health counselor. The truth is that most people can benefit. Here are some of the best reasons to see a counselor:

• Manage anxiety. Everyone experiences stress and anxiety. In therapy you can learn ways to reduce the potency of stressful experiences. This improves both your emotional well being and physical health.

• Understand yourself. Sometimes our motivations and feelings can be mysterious. A skilled counselor can help you unearth the origins of your behaviors and emotions. Insight can lead to positive change.

• Gain clarity about your purpose. What do you want out of life? What is meaningful to you? How do you balance freedom and responsibility? Counseling can help you discover what is truly important and help you focus your energies towards those goals.

• Learn to grieve. Sadness is a normal part of the human experience. Counseling can help normalize your reactions to difficult events and losses and help you express and move through the darkness.

• Develop new skills. Counseling can help you learn more effective ways to communicate, to ask for what you need, express feelings and understand the feelings and needs of your family and friends. You can create self-care strategies that include self-compassion and self-forgiveness. In counseling you can learn what healthy boundaries look like and how to stand-up for yourself.

• Improve relationships. Many people wait until their marriage or primary relationship is in serious trouble before seeking help. But by then, it can be too late. Counseling early in a relationship or when problems first appear can help set the stage for healthy communication, create understanding of our partner’s personality and needs and help develop realistic expectations of the relationship.

Join me next week when I will discuss how to choose a therapist that is right for you.

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How Our Thoughts Create Depression & Anxiety & How to Fix It

Awareness is the first step towards changing any behavior or pattern of thinking. Last week we discussed a method designed to heighten your awareness of negative self-talk by writing it down. Now that you have recorded some of the thinking errors that are undermining your mood, confidence and self-esteem, it is time to create rational responses to those damaging thoughts.

What is a rational response? It is a way to respond to a cognitive distortion that dissipates its power. For example, suppose you are running late to work and your cognitive distortions go something like this:

“I’m never on time. People at work will think I’m useless.”

There are several cognitive distortions at play here. The first statement is an overgeneralization. The second includes mind-reading and fortune telling with a dash of all-or nothing thinking and overgeneralization thrown in for good measure.

Rational responses might be:

• I am not always late. There have been many times I have made it to work right on time.
• Some people I work with might be frustrated if I’m late today, but it is not the end of the world. Everyone is late sometimes.

A rational response must be believable. It won’t help us to replace a negative cognitive distortion with a grandiose or overly optimistic one.

Rational responses only improve mood if we use them. It can help to write out rational responses to your most frequent distortions. In his seminal book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, David Burns suggests using a triple column method to track thoughts, identify types of distortions and create rational responses.

Continue to track your negative self-talk. At the end of the day, read through what you have written down. Identify the types of distortions and write out rational responses to each one. Defend yourself.

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How Our Thoughts Create Depression & Anxiety

In the 1960’s and 70’s when the baby boom generation was coming of age the motto was, “If it feels good do it”. During that time of awakening, a whole swath of society, got in touch with feelings. Unlike the more repressed generations that came before, this cohort, and those who have come after, often rely on emotions as the primary guideposts in their lives, using them to make decisions, shape relationships and determine self-worth. Though being in touch with emotions is important, this approach can also lead to problems.

Problems start when we believe the negative self-talk that often loops in our brain. From this dark script our feelings about the world and ourselves are created. We tell ourselves that that our situation is hopeless or that we never do anything right when we make a mistake. We see the world in black and white and catastrophize when things go awry. These cognitive distortions are what contribute to depression and anxiety. Then, we often act on those feelings. Our poor choices, made in the midst of fear and sadness, perpetuate negative thinking and the cycle continues.

How we think about our situation, ourselves and our lives really does dramatically affect mood. Much clinical research has pointed to the idea that even hearing or reading negative words or seeing negative images can subtly color our feelings and thus our behavior. So imagine what it is like to have blaming, shaming, guilt-inducing self-talk cycling inside our heads 24/7.

Most of my clients know exactly what I mean when I explain about negative self-talk. It is that insidious voice in our heads that tells us only perfection is worthwhile, so if you can’t do something perfectly, the first time, why bother. It tells us that since something has happened a certain way once, it is bound to happen that way again.

This voice only focuses on our negative attributes and mistakes and blows them way out of proportion. The clever and successful things we have done shrink to nothing in comparison. This part of us believes it can predict what will happen next, and knows without a doubt what other people are thinking and why they do the things they do. This part of us shouts constantly about all the things we should be doing and tells us that if you feel something such as guilt or shame you must be guilty or shameful. This voice often keep us locked in habitual ruminating about the past or planning and plotting about the future, so we can never enjoy or be fully present right now.

These cognitive distortions or thinking mistakes can cause a great deal of pain and suffering. They erode self-esteem and confidence and create or worsen depression. So, what can we do to begin changing this thinking and feel more positive about ourselves and our lives? The first step is awareness. To begin changing anything we must first notice what is happening and when it is happening. Much negative thinking is habitual and almost unconscious. But with patience and awareness we can begin to unravel it.

Start by carrying a small notebook in your purse or pocket (or use the memo function  in your phone) and begin recording the negative self- talk you are aware of. What are you telling yourself? How do you talk to yourself internally? When something goes wrong what do you decide is true about you or your situation? Do you believe that when bad things happen it is always your fault? Do you call yourself names such as, “stupid”, “lazy” or “fat”? Write these thoughts down. Don’t worry about capturing every single negative thought, just write down the ones you notice, and jot down the situation you were in when it crossed your mind. You don’t have to do this perfectly.

Visit my blog again next week when we explore how to use the thoughts you have recorded to talk back to the tyrant in our heads and begin repairing and rebuilding self-worth and lessening depression and anxiety.

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