We hear a lot about mental health these days, especially around the impact of COVID and social distancing. The fact is, it’s been rough for many people for a while. COVID has made is harder.
At Avalon, we feel hopeful. We know that research has opened many new, effective pathways for healing mental health challenges over the past twenty years. We know more about human development and the impact of trauma, as well as how to treat it. Effective therapies continue to evolve and real healing is possible.
A New Model
We are moving from a pathology-based medical model of mental illness to a developmental trauma-based model of mental health care. This means that we asking, “what happened to you?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?”
This shift in understanding means that mental health professionals are listening for the things that happened to people that shouldn’t have. We listen for the things that should have happened, but didn’t. We know that many mental health challenges develop from these experiences. Often, the concerns that bring people to therapy are rooted in coping mechanisms that served them at the time, but are no longer useful. Now, these mechanisms get in the way.
Therapies that are trauma-based, such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Internal Family Systems, Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, and several others, work with the brain’s organic healing processes to repair unmet needs and increase mental flexibility and resilience in very real, felt ways for clients.
Many practitioners are excited about the promising research being done today that explores therapies using psychedelics. Medications such as MDMD (Ecstacy) and Psilocybin (Mushrooms) show real promise in the treatment of trauma. It is believed that when these medicines are used as therapy tools by trained professionals, they quiet the Default Neural Network in the brain which allows the client and therapist to quickly facilitate the healing processes of the brain. When followed up with integrative therapy, these treatments are showing real promise to relieve pain and suffering.
Not Me. Us.
This new, developmental framework for understanding mental illness and therapy requires that we recognize how interconnected we are with each other. There are many systems that impact our lives. The mental health impact of oppressive systems on women, children, BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color), LGBTQIA+ Folx, Disabled Folx, Fat Folx, and the many who identify with multiple oppressed identities, cannot be ignored. We belong to each other. It’s not “my mental health.” It’s “our mental health.”
This “we and us” not “me and my” perspective on mental health speaks to a fundamental truth of our human experience: we need each other. Just like all other mammals, we need safe, secure connection to each other in order to have good mental health. As Brene Brown, PhD says, “we are wired for connection.” Our problems lie in our disconnection from ourselves and each other. Experiences that reconnect us, internally and with other people, is a primary source of our healing.
(Guest post by Avalon Healer, Alyson Mullie, LMSW)Death. It’s a difficult topic to talk about. But, we will all be impacted by death and dying at some point in our lives. Death is a natural part of life and thus, so is grief. Yet, we live in a culture with the expectation that we attend the funeral or memorial service for our loved one, and then return to work after our 3.5 bereavement days have expired. It can be hard to know how to cope with death experiences. We feel a need to rush a grief experience so that we can “process” it and “get back to normal.” We may even believe we have gotten back to “normal,” but then the anniversary of our loved one’s death approaches, and we get smacked with all the feels once again. It can seem like an unending cycle. Here are some ways to cope and manage the emotions that emerge as death anniversaries approach.Allow space to remember your loved one.Positive memories are the best way to keep the spirit of your loved one alive after they’ve passed. Even though they have died, they still occupy space in your life and memories. It’s important to recognize that and allow space to experience those memories. It can be as simple as looking at photos, listening to a favorite record, or visiting a favorite place of your loved one. Ask for support.Processing grief can be challenging, but it’s important to remember that you don’t have to do it alone. Ask for support from friends and family members as you grieve. This can be especially important in the early years (1st, 2nd, maybe even 3rd death anniversaries). Grief emotions can be complex and sometimes, having an understanding friend or family member there with you can help create a safe space to experience our loss. Know that there are no “right feelings to have. It is common to have a variety of feelings from sadness to anger to relief.Do something in honor of your loved one.My grandmother died in 2017, 1 year later, I launched my first grief and loss support group in honor of her and my grief experience. Honoring our loved ones allows us, as survivors, to pay tribute to those that we’ve lost. As a therapist, I chose to use the skills I have to give back to others experiencing grief, but there are so many other ways you can honor a loved one. You can visit their grave or resting place and leave flowers, plant a tree in their memory, volunteer for an organization that was special to them, have a gathering of friends and family to reminisce, or light a candle in honor of your loved one. All these things are small ways to simply remind yourself and the world that your loved one existed and that they are remembered.Be kind to yourself.Experiencing grief brings dozens of different and often unexpected emotions. This can be magnified even more on a death anniversary. It’s important to remember, that this is a normal part of the grief process and that it is ok to be sad, angry, happy, or whatever it is you’re feeling. It is important to take the time to grieve by slowing down, doing less, and taking quiet space. You have not let anyone down, you are not crazy. You are just being human. The grief process can be difficult and long, but it is important to take care of yourself along the way.Talk to a therapist.Sometimes it can be difficult to find a friend or family member who understands. Maybe they are overwhelmed with their own grief, or process grief in a way that is incompatible with your way. Maybe they have not (yet) experienced this type of loss and find it difficult to provide the empathy and compassion you need (and deserve). This is when talking to a therapist can help. With a safe, judgement-free space, you really can say whatever you need to say in order to feel your feelings and continue on your healing journey.Alyson Mullie, LMSW
Today, and every
day, resolve to love yourself better.
does not mean we “think we’re so great,” or that we recite empty
affirmations about our vague worth or likableness.
self-love is the practice of slowly and gently changing the way we talk to
ourselves, the story we believe about ourselves, the expectations we have of
ourselves. We do not have to live with self-aggression to be motivated to
change. We do not have to become less of who and what we are in order to be
self-love means getting up each day and deciding to see ourselves as the
vulnerable, needy, child that we are longing for acceptance, longing for
approval, begging for permission. To. Just. Be.
There are many
cultural traditions around self-denigration. We confuse humility with low
self-worth. We confuse self-sacrificing giving to others with love.
We are not at our
best when we don’t feel safe in our inner world. Self-criticism might feel
comfortably familiar, but it is not safe. We’ve simply internalized the
self-aggression of others and made it our own.
Yet, our young inner
selves, now hidden deep in the being of a performative adult, longs for that
adult to turn inward, to see her. Really SEE her. Acknowledge her
vulnerability. Speak to his fear and his need. Slow down and give space for the
truth of their very reasonable longing for compassion, comfort, and protection.
This type of love
looks simply like stopping in the middle of the day, placing a hand on your
chest, closing your eyes, and saying, “Yes. This work/parenting/event IS
scary. Yes. Of course I feel this way. And I can slow down and breathe. I can
let you know that you are not bad, no matter what happens. It is ok that the
house is a mess. There isn’t enough time to do it all. We are just one doing
the best we can.”
By doing this kind
of in-the-moment, spot-check, radical self-love, we can, stitch-by-stitch,
repair our relationship with ourselves and create the happiness and contentment
we have so longed for.
We find that as we
trust ourselves more and fear less, we no longer need many of the strategies we
tried so hard to beat out of ourselves. We become more of the best of who we
are and find that the best of who we are is truly all of who we are.
Today, and every
day, resolve to love yourself better.
Ok, moms, whether we
work as a stay-at-home-mom or a go-to-work-mom, we all have more on our to-do
list than can ever be done. I feel it. The women I support in my office feel
it. The women of the internet who comment, blog, and video feel it.
feeling angry, not good-enough, and that what we are able to get done, we’re
doing none of it well. The constant
stress of always overwhelmed and never caught up can be crushing and we lose
There are many
reasons for this stress.
Is it because of an
economic system that doesn’t value families and children?
Is it because of
that, and a system of patriarchy that teaches women from birth to strongly
associate skilled motherhood and homemaking with our worth as women while men
have no such association and therefore are often oblivious to the work and
attention to detail required to run a family smoothly?
Of course the answer
is yes, but on any given day, it’s the reality we have to navigate, and for
many women, the added burden of trying to change these systems is just beyond.
Usually, we just
look at our list and try to pack in as much as we can and feel just as stressed
and overwhelmed as when we started. Angry and frustrated we feel ineffective
and deficient, certain that “everyone else” has it all together.
(They don’t. I know. I hear the truth in my office.)
So what’s a girl to
Just turn it around.
Look at the reality of the time you have
and then look
at what needs to be done. It’s simple, seemingly too simple, but trust me, it
Now, there’s one
more thing that’s also simple, but super important: Look for the item or items
on your list that are stressing you out the most.
Take the time to
check in with yourself and get curious about what it is about this task that is
so stressful. Try to dig underneath the stress and worry to the underlying
fear, like the deeper underlying fear.
The TL;DR version
is: people will think ____________ about me if I don’t _____________.
Now that we
recognize this underlying fear, we can ask a couple questions:
Do I really need to care about what other people think about this?
If I do, then I need to do this first.
Always do the thing
that is stressing you out the most first. The rest of the list will feel
lighter, easier, less urgent.
You will have
triggered your nervous system to relax because you’ve removed the threat. The better you get at this, the easier it
will be to prioritize your list for less stress and even start to recognize
things you really can let go of.
Maybe there will
even be a little energy left for smashing the patriarchy.
If I could tell you one thing, it’s that you desperately need your own love more than anything and I’m being serious and not “woo-woo” at all.
Loving ourselves is not about thinking about how great we are (but you are pretty great). It’s not about buying ourselves flowers and mani/pedis (although you deserve a massive bouquet and that paraffin wax thing). It’s not about trying to decide if loving yourself right now means eating a piece (or two) of chocolate cake because here’s a finger to the body image patriarchy or if it’s going to the gym instead because here’s a finger to glutton.
Loving ourselves is something deeper.
Anyone can bring you flowers and gifts. Anyone can say nice things to you and tell you how great you are. However, when we think about a truly loving partnership, love isn’t about flowers and gifts and dinners. It’s about the small acts of courtesy and thoughtfulness. It’s about how someone has your back. It’s about being loved and cared for when you haven’t showered in two days and just threw up again with a stomach flu. It’s about being supported and encouraged when you are full of doubt about the interview. It’s about being handed a cup of coffee made just how you like it, or a compassionate hug at the end of a terrible day letting you know that you are still worthy even though you really f-ed up. Self-love is about deeply caring for ourselves.
Here are 5 ways to cultivate self-love:
Deliberately, consistently, fiercely take care of basic needs. Keep it simple. Are you hungry? Do you need a nap? Do you need to go to the bathroom? Do you need to stop and stretch? Would it be good to put yourself to bed early? Spend some time really exploring what your basic needs are and what may be getting in the way of taking care of them. This is a simple, but powerful, way over time to change how you feel about yourself.
Have your own back. Everyone I work with in therapy comes in with a negative view of themselves and regularly responds to challenges by beating themselves up. Believe it or not, this is a part of you that is actually trying to keep you safe from rejection in one form or another. We spend a lot of time growing another part that has your back. This is a part that is on your team and sees the best in you all the time. This is a caring, compassionate voice and fiercely loyal defender who says that you are worthy. No. Matter. What.
Allow your vulnerability. You know what? We are all carrying young parts of ourselves around in these big grown up bodies who are just trying to do the best they can. And it’s too much. There’s too much to do. Too many people to please. Too much responsibility. These young parts are scared and overwhelmed and they have legitimate needs. They need to be acknowledged. They need to be seen. They need to be heard. They need to be met with comfort and kindness. As actual children, we needed these things from others. As adults, we need these things first from ourselves. We can do that now. We can pause, notice our fear, our sadness, our anger, our giddy excitement, our envy, our longing, our grief. We can acknowledge all of these feelings and provide a caring holding space for them.
Practice setting boundaries. We can say no. We can ask for what we need and want. We can be honest about how we really feel. Healthy boundaries decrease anxiety and increase self-confidence and trust. As adults, we are responsible for taking good care of ourselves, our feelings, and our safety. Setting boundaries allows us to belong to ourselves.
Practice self-compassion. This is the mother of all self-love practices. By giving kindness and comfort to ourselves we become less dependent upon imperfect others. We become able to create an inner world that is calm and kind and loving. We become able to know that we are worthy and always have been. We see our own goodness and no longer seek to demand this from others. We live from a deep inner well of gentle caring that empowers us to go out in the world and flourish.
So much of our suffering germinates and spreads through self-aggression and the unmet needs it tends. By learning to deeply love ourselves through habits of self-care (physical and emotional), we return to our true selves, our true, unshakable worthy, and we are afraid less and courageous more. You, my dear, are worthy of your own love, care, and protection.
If there’s one thing I could tell you, it’s that the answer to healing our mind is in our body.
Imagine going to the movies. Overpriced popcorn. Gallon of soda. Sticky floor. Surround sound. America’s favorite pastime. The theater goes dark and we are quickly immersed in the world on the screen. A world made up of intentional visual content and dialogue that tell a particular story. Yet, often the most powerful aspect of storytelling is the least recognized: sound. In film and television, sound effects and musical score are critical to creating the emotional experience of the film for the viewer. The music tells us when to be scared. The music tells us when to cry. The music tells us when to feel happy or hopeful.
Imagine being in a pool right now. Now imagine someone starts playing the theme from Jaws. I bet you’d get out.
At every moment we experiencing our world in our thoughts, emotions, five senses, and our embodied, or “felt sense” experience. Our “felt sense” is the physical response that our bodies experience when we experience emotion. Some people are very tuned into this sense, others feel less aware of it. But for all of us, it functions much the way a music score does for a scene in a film. Emotional content that is not or cannot be conveyed with words stirs and pours through us. And, just like the music in a movie scene, if you change the felt sense, you change the emotional reality of the moment.
A lovely example of the power of music in film is the movie, Dunkirk. The filmmakers deliberately chose to tell the story through the music rather than the plot (there’s a way in which not a lot actually happens – very little character development, but not an action movie either). Yet, viewers feel like something intense and dramaticishappening because of the score in every scene.
What does this have to do with therapy and mental health? Everything. Depression, anxiety, grief, insecurity, addiction, all of it includes, and if often fundamentally located, in sensations in the body and these sensations form the emotional foundation for the stories we believe about ourselves, our lives, and what’s happening right now. Remember, you know there’s no shark in that pool, but it is your body that insists that you get out when that music starts playing.
I often see clients who experience anxiety (which is a thought word for the emotion of fear or scared). For anyone with anxiety, when you think about it, the distress is not about the thoughts. It’s the physical sensations of rapid heart-rate, tightening chest, electricity in the chest and arms, agitation (feeling the need to move), and heat that make it so uncomfortable. If it was just the thoughts, we’d simply think something else and all would be fine. We can, in fact, change our thoughts, but if our body doesn’t come with us, if the music doesn’t change, we are all but powerless to change it.
Body-centered therapies offer ways to learn to change the music. By slowing down our noticing and working mindfully in real time in a session, we can shift from focusing on thoughts to working with what is arising in the body right now. We often find that the body is carrying old hurts and protective-yet-harmful beliefs about ourselves that are longing to be acknowledged and healed. We find that when we do so, it isn’t that we let go of them, but they let go of us.
Next time you are watching a film, notice the music. Is there an invitation to hear the music playing in your own being?
Karen J. Helfrich, LCSW-C
Avalon Psychotherapy Associates, LLC
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