Feeling disconnected?

Connection can be defined as an interaction between two or more people where each person feels empowered and understood. It is commonly thought that people are born with a need for connection. Research in neuroscience shows that our brains can actually grow through healthy connections!disconnect

Disconnection, on the other hand, is a type of interaction where misunderstanding, lack of empathy, or even a sense of danger occurs. Disconnection can happen in many ways. We might experience an acute disconnection when we feel like the other person in the relationship is not responding to our attempts to connect. For example, if one partner says, “this is a great view!” and the other person doesn’t respond or simply says “mm hmm” the first partner may feel like their partner isn’t responding very well to their attempt at connection. If the second partner were to answer “yeah, I think so too” or even “I disagree, our last hike had much better views” chances are that the first person will feel heard and more connected because there is more room for ongoing dialogue. Moments of disconnection are common in relationships and many are minor and can be repaired.

A second type of disconnection is chronic, where the sense of disconnection escalates and one person in the relationship exercises power over another person who feels increasingly hurt and disconnected. The less powerful person begins feeling unsafe sharing parts of themselves and becomes fearful of bringing their true self into the relationship. As the disconnection increases it becomes less and less likely that growth will occur within the relationship and repair becomes more difficult. Examples of this might include a teen who changes to fit in due to a desire to be part of a group or an abusive relationship where one partner has power over the other and the less powerful partner tries to change to appease the more powerful partner.

Traumatic disconnection is a third form of disconnection. In traumatic disconnection a person with a history of trauma feels triggered by a sense of disconnection and becomes unavailable for connection because of a heightened emotional state that leaves them feeling unsafe. The triggered person may remain in a state of disconnection until a sense of safety can be restored. For example, someone who has been emotionally abused may experience traumatic disconnection when a friend says something that feels hurtful and immediately leads the abuse survivor to feel unsafe.

If disconnection occurs repeatedly and without repair, a person may experience a feeling of what is known as condemned isolation in which they sense that they are alone and excluded from the social community. A person experiencing condemned isolation often blames themselves for the situation and feels unworthy of healthy relationships.

Through Relational-Cultural Therapy (RCT) a counselor can create a safe environment to begin exploring connection and disconnection in various relationships. A therapeutic relationship can help identify thoughts and behaviors that lead to growth and connection and those that lead to disconnection and hurt feelings. Through the therapeutic relationship it becomes possible to rework ideas about relationships. As people in therapy gain a sense empowerment and connection they increasingly experience what are referred to as the five good things: zest, worth, clarity, productivity, and desire for more connection. These five good things are qualities that encourage growth within relationships. Once people have experienced growth and positive change in their personal lives, they sometimes want to share these newly discovered qualities with others in the community. They may build relationships with neighbors or coworkers or through volunteer work. In doing so, the community benefits from the changes made at the individual level. Personal growth becomes community growth!

Jbmti.org has more on Relational-Cultural theory and therapy.

 

Inspired by the Daily Prompt: Connected

3 Stages of Survival: Moving from Victim to Survivor and Beyond

Following the trauma of domestic violence people are often identified as victims. Victimhood is only one stage in the recovery process. The stages aren’t linear, they don’t proceed in a straight line. I often tell the people I work with that progress is often one step forward two steps back. The following identifies the various stages of survivorhood: victim, survivor, and thriver.

Stage 1: Victim

Victimization by a domestic violence (DV) perpetrator often leads a person to feel worthless and incapable. Domestic violence is about controlling another person and depleting their sense of power. Control and power over another person can take the form of physical, emotional, sexual, or financial abuse.

People who are victims often have low self-esteem, feel a sense of shame and worthlessness, and may not feel that they deserve nice things or that they deserve to be treated respectfully by others. Victims may be hypervigilant, always expecting a threat, and feel guarded. People in the victim stage of healing often feel alone, selfish, numb, damaged, confused, and hopeless. It’s common for perpetrators to isolate victims from friends and family. Isolated, lonely people with low self-esteem are easier to control and maintain power over.

Victims of DV are often afraid to tell their stories for a number of reasons. They may fear that their partners will retaliate or be fired from their jobs. Victims may believe that their stories are not worthy of sharing. It is also common for people in the victim stage to feel overwhelmed by their past as they come to recognize the struggles they have endured. DV victims commonly have difficulty setting healthy boundaries and find themselves wrapped up in drama and unhealthy relationships with toxic, unsafe people. Victims tend to put their own needs last and often have difficulty communicating in ways other than being passive or sometimes passive-aggressive. Victims tend to believe that suffering is just the way things are and have a hard time finding joy. Victims also frequently turn to substance abuse or codependent relationships to help them feel like they are doing okay.

Stage 2: Survivor

Once a person begins moving away from unhealthy and violent relationships with an abuser, they can begin reflecting on their experiences in a safe environment. As they recognize the struggle they have survived they begin searching for reasons why this experience happened and how they can heal. People in the survivor stage view themselves as both wounded and healing and begin gaining a sense of hope. A grieving process may take place as the survivor comes to terms with the different losses that have taken place.

Survivors are often eager to tell their stories and want to talk about all the aspects of their experience in their attempts to heal. Support groups can be a great help for people in the survivor stage since they want to share their stories and hear others’ experiences as well. Survivors begin learning ways to set healthy boundaries and explore what is safe or dangerous in their relationships. Through their curiosity and sharing of experiences with others, survivors begin identifying patterns, which can become goals to begin changing. Change takes time for survivors and doesn’t happen overnight or in a matter of weeks. Whereas victims tend to believe that suffering is normal, survivors begin gaining a sense of hopefulness and relief as they see a journey leading them forward.

Survivors also learn to laugh again. They have a healthy sense of humor and can find moments of joy. Instead of needing substances or codependent relationships, survivors can begin regulating their emotional pain and may seek out therapy to explore the new and uncomfortable feelings that have been numbed or disregarded before. Survivors begin learning about a wider range of emotions.

Stage 3: Thriver

Although many people feel satisfied reaching the survivor stage, others believe that there is still more to go on their journey and these people become thrivers. People in the thriving stage have a sense of gratitude for this new found life that seems to be overflowing with miracles and wonderment. Instead of feeling isolated, thrivers feel a sense of connection with others and the universe. Thrivers have healthy connections and are both independent and interdependent. Thrivers have a sense of pride in their ability to care for themselves. They live in the present moment and understand that emotional pain passes and can be learned from.

Thrivers set healthy boundaries with others and protect themselves from toxic people but are also capable of living with an open mind and heart. Thrivers place their own needs first as they recognize that helping others requires care for themselves first. Thrivers create peace instead of chaos and find joy around them. They use healthy humor and feel a range of positive and negative emotions which helps them feel alive and genuine.

Each of the first two stages takes time move on from and some people feel quite content and happy living life in the second stage. Some people experience great difficulty moving from victim to survivor stages and even become more comfortable staying in the victim role. The victim role offers familiarity. Oftentimes when I meet with survivors of DV who have entered into what seem to be healthy relationships, they describe feeling fear and confusion because they don’t know how to cope with a healthy partner and it feels scary. Survivors have often learned a number of coping skills during the victim stage to get through a violent relationship and learning to be in healthy relationships can require learning or building on a whole new set of skills. Reaching out for support is common for survivors and many of them turn toward family and close friends.

More can be found on these stages in the book: Surviving Domestic Violence: A Guide to Healing Your Soul and Building Your Future by Danielle F. Wozniak, PhD, and Karen Allen, PhD.tree-338211_1280

Inspired by the daily prompt: Survival

A Brick Wall or a Yellow Brick Road?

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Working with traumatized individuals I often hear people say they have trouble getting beyond an emotional “wall” they have built. We create these walls as a defense to protect ourselves after we’ve been hurt by someone. A wall can act as a strict boundary that says “keep out” or “no trespassing.” As I listen to people talk about the walls they’ve built to keep themselves safe, I also hear them express hope that these walls might come down because they feel very isolated behind them. Our walls  can become prisons. Some people say they would be happier if they could just remove a brick or two. This post is to help you try to visualize what a happy life might look like beyond your wall.

Imagine your wall and picture each brick you have placed. When did you first start building your protective wall? What do you remember about the first brick you laid that started your wall? How has your wall kept you safe? How has your wall been a barrier to healthy relationships or other things you want for yourself? What kind of boundaries would you prefer to set with others without the help of your wall?

What if you could lay that wall down and see that it creates a brick road stretched out before you. (Think Wizard of Oz with the yellow brick road spiraling it’s way outward.) Maybe you’ve been building your wall higher and higher for some time now and, as you think about laying that wall down, you see that it extends for miles ahead. Because you have been stuck behind this wall for so long, you might find that you feel both excited and terrified about where this road might lead. Because this is your road (you built it after all!) you can travel on it at whatever speed you want to. You can run full speed ahead without looking back, or maybe you prefer to take your time and slowly explore everything along the way.

Where would you like this new road to take you? Who would you like to travel alongside you as you journey down this road? Again, because this is your road, you don’t have to take anybody with you that you don’t want to and nobody can join you unless you invite them. What would you like to see along the journey down your road? What activities would you most like to take part in now that you’re no longer behind that wall?

Maybe you’re someone who has been building a thick, sturdy wall instead of a tall one. This type of wall might make a good bridge if you tipped it over, helping you cross deep, scary trenches. Maybe you’ve been in those trenches before and your bridge gives you safe passage now. Where would you like your bridge to take you? What would you like your bridge to connect you to? What would you leave behind as you cross your bridge? How would you feel about leaving those things behind?

If your wall is too tall or too thick, and you can’t imagine stepping out from behind it right now, what if you choose to remove a brick or two? What is the first thing you would hope to see? Every brick has a story, or reason, for being added to your wall. What is the first brick you would like to work on removing from your wall? Although your wall has been helpful in many ways, what annoys you about your wall?

Feel free to reflect on the questions here and comment with your thoughts about the emotional walls we build or comment about your own wall you’ve built.

 

 

Post inspired by the daily prompt: Brick

 

Fear-less

Life Without Fear

How would your life be different if you were incapable of feeling fear? We all feel fear from time to time. If we’re out hiking and we see a bear it’s likely we’ll have a sense of danger and feel fear. We have an identifiable source of our uncomfortable feeling: the bear. If you were incapable of feeling fear, you might approach her while she’s hunting for food with both her cubs. It’s likely you wouldn’t have a very good outcome in this situation!

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERALike all emotions, fear has a purpose. It’s job is to protect us from dangerous situations.

People who struggle with trauma-related conditions frequently feel as though they’re living in a constant state of fear. It’s like they are seeing the bear over and over and it feels very real even though the bear is no longer there. This can be where anxiety begins. Fear is something we feel when there is an imminent, identifiable danger. Anxiety is a feeling of tension occurring  when we think about danger. Anxiety is about your thoughts of danger, fear is about a visible source of danger. For trauma survivors, a life without fear may seem like a blessing! Waking up one morning and not feeling any fear may seem like a miracle for some who live with fear on a daily basis. However, some amount of fear can help protect us.

Types of Fears Survivors May Have

  • Fear of sleeping due to nightmares
  • Fear of being judged by service providers
  • Fear of more abuse by a perpetrator
  • Fear of losing close relationships
  • Fear of not being believed
  • Fear of trusting others
  • Fear that your reactions will be unpredictable
  • Fear that life will end early or suddenly
  • Fear that the traumatic event will happen again

Managing Fear

The goal when working with fear is not to become fearless but to fear less. Recovery from trauma is possible if you work actively to make changes. The following are some ways to begin managing your trauma-related fears.

  • Identify triggers
  • Gain awareness of the connection between the trauma and its consequences
  • Use healthy coping skills
  • Build social support
  • Practice spirituality
  • Access community resources (legal, mental health, advocacy, medical, etc.)
  • Maintain a daily routine
  • Recognize positive moments to build optimism
  • Pay attention to your self-talk and use positive language

Positive personal growth is possible following trauma. Some individuals are able to gain a new sense of meaning or purpose in life after a traumatic event. Others share lessons they learned from their difficult experiences and provide valuable education about recovery. Keep in mind that fear is there to protect you. Learning how to manage fear takes time. Survivors are generally resilient and capable of developing skills that can help manage symptoms and possibly prevent long term problems.

 

~Inspired by the daily prompt Fearless Fantasies ~

When Home No Longer Feels Safe

What comes to mind when you think of safety? Comfort, freedom from danger, feeling secure, being unharmed, feeling protected, having a sense of trust, peace houseand sanctuary may be some words associated with safety.

Maybe there has been a time when you’ve felt unsafe. Perhaps there was a sense that your life was somehow in danger or you felt distrustful toward someone because of the way they were behaving. Maybe it was something that seemed minor but a “red flag” went up in your mind that something didn’t feel “right.”

Unfortunately, for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, the sense of safety becomes diminished through the violating behaviors of the abusers. Violating, abusive behavior might be physical, emotional/verbal, or sexual in nature and is typically used to exert control over another person. Whether a violation happens once or multiple times, a victim’s sense of safety changes.

The often traumatic violations affect how you view yourself, the people around you, and the world in general. It becomes difficult to feel comfortable and safe in your own home. Many victims are also often isolated by the abusers so social supports are unavailable as safe connections to reach out to.

Survivors become masterful at observing other people in an effort to stay safe. You remain in a heightened state of alertness as you try to meet your partner’s (often confusing) demands. You become acutely aware of your partner’s behaviors and moods. You may find yourself asking How did they seem when they got home or woke up in the morning? Are they slamming the door? Do they seem calm? Do they seem too calm? Did they have a good day? Have they been out drinking? Was dinner okay? Did they get home late again? Are the kids being too loud? All of the questions running through your mind seem to be related to one larger concern: Am I safe? The thinking tends to be that if you can identify or predict your partner’s behaviors, moods, or mannerisms, you can stay safe by knowing how to respond accordingly and attempt to prevent a blow-up. The intention of this skill of observation is to keep you safe but can lead to feeling anxious and exhausted.

Anxiety arises as you attempt to please a partner who never seems to be satisfied. You come to believe that you are not enough for your partner. You often second-guess yourself and your decisions because your partner tells you whatever you did wasn’t enough, was done wrong, wasn’t what they wanted, or call you a degrading name for trying to do anything at all.

It’s hard to feel safe if you feel anxious, concerned, worried, or scared most of the time. Even if the abusive relationship has ended, you may find you still remain in that constant state of readiness; ready to meet someone else’s needs; ready to be the peace-keeper; ready to do whatever it takes to keep another person from harming you, your children, or your pets.

If you have been violated in some way by an abuser, it’s important to know that it’s not your fault and that you deserve to live a life in comfort, free from danger, with a sense of security, and without fear of being harmed. You can click here to download my free booklet on abuse and safety planning or call the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). If you want to learn some ways to identify abuse or take action you can read my blog here. What does safety mean to you? When do you feel most safe? What does safety look and feel like to you?

 

Inspired by a prompt from~ Safety First~

Express Yourself

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I know very little about art, except for maybe a few general things. I know that I like some art, dislike other art, and feel neutral about the rest of it. I know there are various mediums people use to create art, like sculptures, painting, photography, poetry, writing, dance, theater, music, and drawing. In another post, I wrote about how I find counseling to be a form of creativity. I also know I appreciate the work that goes into creating a piece of art, whether it’s something I like, or not. I am frequently filled with admiration for peoples’ creative abilities.

Another thing I know about art is that it can be a great way for you to Irises2express yourself. It can be a way to take what’s “inside” and share it with the outside world. It can feel rewarding to see a finished product or to turn an idea into a reality.

Artistic expression can also play a role in your mental health. One of the signs of depression, for example, is a loss of interest in things that you normally enjoy. If you notice a sense of sadness and lack of energy and just can’t seem to motivate yourself to do the activity you usually enjoy, pay attention to your mood and notice whether it lingers longer than you think it should, especially if it worsens or doesn’t go away after a couple weeks. Sometimes picking your hobby up again can be a step toward a better mood. Art can also help you manage anxiety by channeling that restless energy into something constructive, it can be a healthy skill to use for self-care and to cope with distressing feelings.

Some of my favorite art is from Vincent van Gogh who I learned suffered from a combination of physical and mental illness, both of which were made worse by his abuse of alcohol. In addition to his paintings, van Gogh also expressed himself through handwritten letters in which he described his struggle with his illnesses. Although van Gogh’s story ends tragically with his death at the age of 37, it is also a story that shows hope as he sought meaning and explored his mental and physical problems through his painting, spirituality, and writings. I think that artistic expression not only allows us to gain a greater understanding of the artist but gives us a greater understanding of ourselves as well. Maybe in this way, art acts as a way to connect us with ourselves and with others.

How do you express yourself creatively? In what way does your artistic or creative ability help you manage stressors in your life?

 

Inspired by a prompt from ~The Artist’s Eye ~

Stress & Nutrition

healthyWhat is your favorite thing to eat? Is it sweet, crunchy, or chewy? Does it taste better eaten hot or cold? Do you look forward to eating it once a year during special occasions or do you eat it more often? What is it about that particular food that makes it your favorite? Does it have a special meaning for you? Is it a comfort food?

I often meet with people who refer to themselves as “stress eaters,” someone who eats more often and less healthily when they’re under stress. Other people I meet with identify themselves as the opposite, someone who loses their appetite when under stress. Feeling anxious or stressed can affect our relationship with food and we may eat more or less depending on how our bodies respond to that stress. chocolate-chip-cookies

Some foods and the ingredients in them are associated with increased anxiety such as caffeine, sugar, candy, and soda pop. People frequently also consume alcohol or nicotine which can affect mood. Salt is sometimes related to an increase in blood pressure. Anxiety can be associated with heart disease, especially with frequently increased heart rate and high blood pressure.

Being mindful of the food you eat can help manage anxiety. Maintaining a diet with balanced amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fiber, nuts, and proteins can help manage anxiety and boost your mood. These foods contain vitamins and are associated with your brain’s production of dopamine and serotonin which can affect levels of energy and alertness.

Here are a few general tips to help improve your mood and manage nutrition and anxiety:

  • Drink plenty of water, dehydration can affect your mood
  • Use caffeine in moderation, it can make you feel jittery or nervous and can act as a diuretic which may lead to dehydration
  • Consume alcohol in moderation, it can interfere with sleep
  • Find enjoyable ways to be active to manage weight, reduce anxiety, and improve your heart health
  • Get plenty of rest, lack of sleep is associated with stimulating areas of the brain that process emotions and can trigger anxiety
  • Learn ways to relax, if you’re someone who loses your appetite when anxiety sets in it can help to know that appetite usually returns once you’re in a more relaxed state

What do you notice about your relationship with food when you feel anxious?

 Inspired by a prompt from ~Pour Some Sugar on Me~


Flawed: Accepting your worst quality

shellsAs I checked the daily blog prompt this morning I thought the question it posed was odd, at least from a counselor’s perspective. The suggested topic was titled “Flawed” and the accompanying prompt suggested writing on the question “What is your worst quality?” My initial response was to think “that’s an awful question!” As a counselor, I don’t think it has ever crossed my mind to ask that question. Asking someone to focus on their worst quality and flaws, in my mind, is equivalent to asking the similarly awful question “what’s wrong with you?”

I think both questions can lead to a feeling of shame. When we believe there is something inherently “wrong” with us or we dwell on that nagging, less than ideal quality, we increase our feelings of anxiety and insecurity and lower our self-esteem. Once shame enters the scene it can begin interfering with our daily lives. We become less likely to interact with others, we begin using negative self-talk more often, and we become full of doubt or even self-hatred. Shame eventually tries to convince us that others must feel the same way about us that we feel about ourselves and we come to feel as though we’re toxic.

I would suggest that we all have imperfections, flaws, and qualities we think about changing or sometimes wish were different. Sometimes we can change them, sometimes we can’t. In instances where we can’t change our least favorite qualities, or when the change is going to take time, it can help to find ways to accept ourselves as we are, in this moment, with all our shortcomings and strengths.

Doing a simple mindfulness exercise, for example, might help:

“Breathing in I recognize this flaw, breathing out I accept myself where I am right now.”

Using affirmations and monitoring your self-talk are additional ways you can manage thoughts and feelings related to flaws and imperfections.

Instead of asking yourself what your worst quality is and emphasizing your flaws, I would encourage you to ask “how can you accept who you are even with that quality or flaw?” What’s your favorite way to deal with the thoughts and feelings associated with your flaws? How are you able to accept your worst qualities when they come to your attention?

 

~Inspired by a prompt from: Flawed~

That Haunting Feeling of Guilt

Maybe you know that feeling, that one that arises when you believe your behavior is inappropriate in some way and goes against a set of values or moral standards. You feel as though you’ve done something that will result in disapproval from the people around you and that haunting feeling of guilt sets in.

We often think of guilt as being a negative and unpleasant emotion. It can feed a feeling of anxiety as we fear disapproval or judgment from others. However, like most negative and unpleasant emotions, that guilt is trying to tell you something needs to change. Guilt can be reframed in a positive light. It can build prosocial behavior by motivating you to take part in your community, encouraging you to help family or neighbors, and it can inspire you to eat healthy and exercise.

Most people don’t want to be solely motivated by guilt though. Guilt doesn’t feel good! When working with guilt it can help to consider your values and what your intention is for alleviating the feeling. If you ask yourself “why should I help my neighbor?” and your answer is “because I’ll feel guilty if I don’t” then you are being motivated by guilt. However, if you ask yourself “why should I help my neighbor?” and your answer is “because it’s the compassionate thing to do” then you are demonstrating an intention to help based on your value of compassion, not guilt.

Guilt can be worked with in several ways.

  1. Learn from your behavior. If you did do something wrong and had a negative result, learn from what you did so you don’t repeat the same negative outcome in the future.
  2. Be accountable for your actions. Take responsibility by apologizing, acknowledging your mistake or behavior, and be careful to not let the behavior happen again.
  3. Recognize what you can and cannot change. If you can change something about the situation, change it! If you can’t change what happened, find healthy ways to move on.
  4. Share your experience with others. If you’ve learned something from your experience with guilt, share your knowledge with others so they might prevent the same outcome from happening.
  5. If you’ve done nothing wrong and can’t place why you’re feeling guilty, talk with someone about it. Guilt can be a sign that something unhealthy is going on with your thinking and talking about it can help sort out where the feeling might be coming from.

Inspired by a prompt from The Guilt that Haunts Me