When the Holidays Aren’t So Merry

When the Holidays Aren’t So Merry—Making it Through the Season

“What’s wrong with me?” my patient (fictional) asked, shredding the tissue in her hands as she wept on my couch. “Shouldn’t this be a happy time of year? Why can’t I feel Christmassy and jolly?”

And she is not alone. When you think of all of the people who are grieving and/or going through their first holiday season after divorce, widowhood, or the loss of a loved one, you realize that the memories can make the holidays more painful than happy at this time of year. Add to that the additional stress the season brings in the form of activities, shopping, and school events—well, you can see the problem. It’s like adding that last too-much drop of water to an already overflowing bucket.

What to do? If you are experiencing loss this time of year, your goal is this: to make it through. This is not the time to fill your chore list with handmade gifts (or gifts at all—who’s going to blame you this year?) or high stress dinners. If ever there was a time in your life to put you (and your children, if any) first, this is it. Exercise your “say-no” muscle with a firm and assertive smile and pass on committees, obligations, and entertaining. The people who might judge you—and believe me, there are fewer than you imagine—are simply not worth a second thought.

When the memories and tears come, allow them. What we resist, grows stronger, so don’t fight the feelings that arise. Tears actually expel cortisol, a stress hormone that is damaging to the body and needs to come out in order for you to be healthy.

Ask your friends and family for what you need this year, specifically. Do you need help making decisions on the children’s Christmas list? You probably have at least one friend who would love to help you. Do you need people to just listen to your grief without advising you? Tell them that you really just need an ear, not a response, from them.

These are just a few ideas; you know best what helps you stay strong. Just remember that you WILL make it through. Rest, heal, and wait for better days.

Reality Check: How to Test Your Anxious Thoughts

How we see it is how it will be.” (Anonymous)

We most often suffer more from what we FEAR than what actually HAPPENS, so it’s important for you to learn how to evaluate what you are thinking. Things always look less fearful when we face them head on vs. running or distracting ourselves into TV, alcohol, food, or work.

Spend some time in your journal with your anxious thoughts, asking yourself these questions:*

  1. What is the situation that I’m stressed or worried about?
  3. How much do I believe that thought? A little? A lot? Or give a percentage
  4. How does that thought MAKE ME FEEL? (assign a feeling)
  5. How STRONG is that feeling? A little? A lot? Or give a percentage
  6. What makes me think the thought is true?
  7. What makes me think the thought is NOT true or not COMPLETELY true?
  8. What’s another way to look at this situation?
  9. What’s the worst that could happen?
  10. Could I still live through that?
  11. What’s the BEST that could happen?
  12. What will PROBABLY happen?
  13. What WILL happen if I keep telling myself the same thought?
  14. What COULD happen if I changed or challenged my thinking?
  15. What would I tell my friend _________________ if this happened to him/her?
  16. What should I do now?
  17. How much do I believe that negative thought now? A little? A lot? Or give a percentage
  18. How strong is my negative FEELING now? A little? A lot? Or give a percentage.

Remember: you are not alone! I am here for you to evaluate and explore these fears and help you learn new ways of thinking and seeing your life.

Regular Checkups: The Value of Maintenance Care

 “The depression symptoms are just so bad again,” my patient (fictional) sighed as she settled in on my couch after a six month absence. “I’m having the guilt feelings, sadness, no energy, trouble sleeping, and I’m gaining weight because of stress eating. I know y

ou scheduled me to come in once a month for a while after we finished the Plan of Care, but I thought I was cured and didn’t need to. Can we get me back on track?”

As I listened sympathetically to her complaints, I couldn’t help but think how her pain could’ve been avoided with a simple monthly check-in session. Issues such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, relationship changes, and poor self-esteem don’t develop overnight, and don’t permanently go away that quickly either. But once change has been achieved in counseling, the progress can be maintained with follow up care. Left without this support, issues can return-and often do.

Think about it for a moment. There is no other doctor or dentist that we see once in our lives, and never again, yet we think one round of therapy can permanently keep us mentally healthy? Problems and challenges arise throughout life, just like illnesses and cavities do, to use the medical support mentioned above as an example. Having the skilled insight and support of a therapist to manage these challenges can be the difference between a prolonged struggle or a successful and quick resolution.

I encourage you to use me as a resource throughout your life, much as you do your other healthcare providers. Why struggle alone? I am here for you through your darkest times or just times that the stress feels overwhelming. Let’s maintain the progress and keep you on track!

Signs of Codependency

You Won’t Change, So I Must Be Doing Something Wrong:

A Quick Look at Codependency

Codependency is excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically a partner who requires support due to an illness or addiction.

Being in relationship with an alcoholic, addict, or otherwise out of control person often causes behavior traits to emerge that cause great misery for the “helper.” I often see this person in my office, who comes in wanting to know how to change their loved one. Unfortunately, we cannot change another adult, and efforts to do so usually make the addict resist control by going deeper into their addiction.

The Mistaken Beliefs of Codependents:

“If I AM: good enough/nice enough/skinny enough/vigilant enough/accommodating enough/loud enough/upset enough…

“If I say it enough times in enough different ways…

“If I give enough money/withhold enough money, give sex/withhold sex, pout, criticize, get you out of bed in the mornings, do all the irrational things you demand…


You will do what I think you need to do to fix your life, our relationship.

You won’t drink/cheat/use drugs/yell/hit/get mad at me.

You will appreciate me.

If I do all of the above and you STILL DON’T become the person I want you to be, then I FEEL LIKE A FAILURE. I FEEL GUILTY.

I keep doing these things because I believe it will make you/others/God pleased with me. You/others/God will admire me for my sacrifice. This is what makes me worthy.

I know exactly what YOU think, feel, and need, and why. I can analyze you endlessly.

I have no idea what I think, feel, or need, or why. And I am uncomfortable when my counselor asks me to be still, listen to myself, journal, dig deeper, try new things that might make me happy, set a boundary with you.

I would much rather figure out what’s wrong with YOU than look at ME.

Tips for Coping with Panic Attacks

Always begin with a visit to your doctor or health care provider to ensure that there is not an underlying medical cause to your symptoms. Don’t self-diagnose.

Panic attack symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Inability to relax*

*(NOTE): since these can be symptoms of other medical emergencies, DON’T self-diagnose. Seek emergency medical care if this is the first time you’ve experienced this)

What Can I Do To Cope?

  • RATE the panic on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 meaning not bad at all, up to 10 meaning, call an ambulance! Anything we can MEASURE we can start to control.
  • ACCEPT, don’t fight. Fighting increases the bodily symptoms.
  • ASK yourself: what’s the worst that could happen here? How would I handle it?
  • BREATHE normally and naturally. Pay attention to your breath.
  • FOCUS on an object in the room. See it, describe it to yourself. This helps orient you in the present moment reality.
  • TIME the attack (measuring again). Note how little time it actually lasts.
  • NOTICE if the attacks are happening in a certain location or at a certain time (“cued” attacks.) When it passes, get out a piece of paper and write about that place or time. BE A SCIENTIST about your panic—objective, measuring, curious.
  • TAKE your writings to your counselor to further explore the causes of the panic.
  • REMEMBER that overcoming panic is not a matter of willpower. It is a malfunction of brain chemistry which can be helped by cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or medication.  Medication takes away the SYMPTOM but not the CAUSE. Therapy helps get to the root of the problem.

Remember that a panic attack won’t hurt your physically. Although it’s very uncomfortable, your body will continue to breathe and function through it. Relaxing even a small amount and observing what’s happening will give you a much-needed distance and perspective.

Healing The Past: Children of Narcissistic Parents

“Why is getting along with my mother so hard?” said my client, sighing deeply as she wiped away tears in session. “I feel anxious all of the time, I’m depressed, and I can’t even hear her sigh of disapproval on the phone without wanting to run and hide. What am I doing wrong?”

The tendency to feel like everything is your fault, and that YOU are in fact the one “doing something wrong”, is typical of the child of a narcissistic parent. Karyl McBride, PhD* also notes the following symptoms:

  1. feeling “not good enough”
  2. valued by your parent for what you DO, not who you are
  3. feeling unlovable
  4. constantly trying to win your parent’s approval
  5. your parent emphasizes how your behavior LOOKS, or makes them look, over how you FEEL
  6. your parent is jealous of you
  7. your parent doesn’t support your healthy expressions of self, especially when it conflicts with their own needs or threatens them
  8. In your family, it’s always about pleasing that one parent
  9. your parent can’t empathize with you
  10. your parent is critical and judgmental

There is typically a family “scapegoat,” a person on whom the family blames the problems. “If only Jane wouldn’t cross Mother…if only she would call her more often…THEN Mother wouldn’t get so upset.”

The truth of the matter is, a parent who is narcissistic is always going to be looking for ways that the “scapegoat” lets them down. This parent’s attitude is not, “what have you done for me,” but instead “what have you done for me TODAY?” It truly is never enough to get the “scapegoated” child off the hook.

Freedom comes when, with the guidance and encouragement of your therapist, you begin to gently challenge these things in the family and express your own needs.

*Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers

Healthy Self-Talk: Be Your Own Cheerleader

“I just can’t do ANYTHING right,” my client sighed as she settled further into the couch. ‘I should just accept that I am fat, depressed and a failure at relationships. Nothing will help me.”

And as long as she chooses to continue talking to, and about, herself that way, she WILL be overweight, depressed and alone, and most importantly, unable to change, regardless of her therapist’s skills. For the fact is that every cell in our body responds to what we think and say about ourselves.

Although most of us are familiar with the “love our neighbors as ourselves” directive, we miss the meaning of the last part. Most of us wouldn’t dream of calling our neighbor names or criticizing them point-blank to their faces, yet we look in the mirror and do it to ourselves every day. We feel compassion for our friend’s struggles with food, relationships or other issues, yet we are merciless and impatient with our own. Self love is a vital key to health, and self condemnation the thing that most often keeps us from our goals. For instance, if you are having trouble ending an unhealthy relationship, AND you “beat yourself up” for your “weakness,” we now have THREE issues to overcome—the relationship, the self loathing, AND the damage done to your self image by the insult! Self love, forgiveness for our mistakes, and patience with our failures leads to the strength and discipline necessary to move forward into a healthy, balanced life.

To become your own encourager and best friend requires a deep examination of who taught you to be self-critical in the first place. Where did the “I’m not OK” message come from? It is most often from one of two sources—either what was said about you by your parent, or what a parent said about themselves in front of you. If you heard negativity modeled in your growing up years, the pattern was set for you to live that way as well. Children really do learn what they live. But like any learned behavior, this thinking pattern can be changed; sometimes by yourself, and sometimes with the help of a counselor if the pattern is persistent or severe.

To remain vital and healthy in your thinking throughout your lifetime, practice catching yourself when you are saying or thinking self-critical things. Immediately visualize a big red STOP sign to interrupt the pattern. Replace the self-criticism with a positive, encouraging thought, such as “I’m proud of myself for trying to change.”

 If you focus on what you DON”T like about yourself, you will get more of it, but focusing on the successes in your life will lead to more success. Congratulate yourself on victories, whether it’s a ten minute walk when you really just wanted to watch television, or keeping your temper in traffic.

All of us respond to love and encouragement, including when we give it to ourselves. Give yourself the gift of acceptance!

How to Handle Divorce: Ten Quick Tips

1. Protect the children. Children have a deep psychological need to think well of BOTH parents. Avoid letting them hear you put down or say bad things about the other parent, regardless of how justified you feel in saying these things.

2. Depend on the experts. Well- meaning friends and family will give you legal and psychological advice; that’s not a good source. Thank them for their concern and move on.

3. Avoid other drastic life changes. Make your life as stable as possible right now. Try to keep sleeping and eating on a schedule. See your doctor and/or counselor immediately if these are disrupted for more than a week or so-depression and anxiety may take hold if basic needs are ignored.                                    

4. Take a Divorce Parenting class as soon as possible. When I taught this class, the comment I heard most often was, “why didn’t someone tell me to take this sooner?” You will find help and support there. Ask your attorney for more information.                   

5.  Maintain professionalism at work. It is natural for your focus to be disrupted, but strictly limit the amount of time you spend on email or conversation about your divorce.

6. Lay it down sometimes. Take a break and play with your kids. Go see a funny movie. Let your mind rest. If the worries persist, promise yourself you will go back to worrying about the issues later that day, then return to the fun.

7.  Limit contact with your ex-spouse. You are not obligated to endure any conversations that your attorney does not require of you. Make your contact brief and limited only to necessary details of custody issues.

8. Observe your breathing. Under stress, our breathing often becomes shallow. This leads our muscles to tense up and puts the whole body on constant alert. Put a sticker or an object around your workplace and use it as a reminder to breathe deeply.

9.  Stand up for yourself.  It’s time to say “I need, I feel” or “no, I can’t do that.” Maybe this is new behavior for you.  A counselor who has been specifically trained in divorce (not marital) counseling can teach you how to detach and communicate in a civil manner that protects the dignity and rights of both parties.

10. Finally, remember: this WILL pass. You are currently experiencing one of the hardest life experiences there is. Keep your focus firmly on the hope of a peaceful outcome and take care of yourself in the meantime.

Counseling for Children

Child counseling can be extremely successful if you support your child throughout the counseling process. Family counseling also works wonders if everyone bands together and supports each other through the changes that are being made. Follow these tips to support your child and family in therapy:

1. Be there to listen and offer caring support, without judgment, to your child during the time in child therapy

2. Meet with the child’s counselor to make sure personalities are a match for you and your child.

3. Be open and talk frequently with your child. Make sure discussions are age appropriate; early school aged children need brief, simple discussions or explanations, upper elementary age children may ask more detailed questions and may need help figuring out reality from fiction.

4. Don’t pressure the child to talk to you about what happened in the child counseling session, your child may tell you in his/her own time in his/her own way.

5. Keep the lines of communication open with the child’s counselor and the child. Showing your child that you trust the child’s counselor helps build trust.

6. Try not to rush change. Remember trust is built over time; it’s not any different in child and family counseling. Allow time for your child to learn to trust his/her counselor. If you become intimidated by the child-counselor relationship, bring it up to the counselor (there’s nothing to be embarrassed about).

7. Patience is extremely important throughout the child and family counseling process. Children often don’t know how to express their emotions and fears like an adult would, therefore may have some temporary behavior changes throughout the process.

8. Be a good role model, show the child you are willing to take care of yourself and if you need counseling, seek it.

9. Make time to discuss your child’s worries, fears, and even accomplishments. Be sure to turn off any distractions (phones, TV, video games, etc.) so your child knows how important the time with your child is to you.

10. Most importantly, enjoy favorite activities with your child alone and with the entire family.

If you have any questions, throughout the process, speak up. Your child and family counselor is there to help!

An Attitude of Gratitude: Tips for Tough Times

“In the depth of winter, I finally realized that deep within me there lay an invincible summer.” A. Camus

Let’s face it, life throws us curves sometimes. We all experience the ups and downs that lead some of us to seek a counselor’s help: relationship issues, money problems, job struggles, grief and loss. Add any of those stressors to our current economy and it becomes even more challenging to stay positive and thankful! And yet, an optimistic focus is an essential quality for mental health and happiness. What do we do?

The Practice of Optimism

The alarming thing about tough times is that negativity feeds on itself. As we “talk fear” to others, we contribute to THEIR anxiety. They then spread that talk to more people, keeping us all in a state of uneasiness. Negativity is truly contagious, a “mental virus” spread by thoughtless conversation, news stories, and emails. Before you know it, a whole nation is panicking, which helps cause the very hard times we fear.

What we Focus On, Grows…

An ‘attitude of gratitude’ simply means that we make a conscious choice to put our attention on what we like about our lives. One easy exercise is to list the three best things that happened to us today, and then note why they happened. The “why” is usually because we chose to make an effort to improve our lives, whether it’s the good feelings we get from working out, or the pleasure of calling a friend. This helps us see that we are not victims and we are not powerless. There is always one small thing we can do to improve our present circumstance and ease our anxiety. Some ideas:

  • Lay the problem down. Take a break from trying to solve the situation. Put aside the divorce papers and take a walk. Leave the resume writing behind and watch a funny movie. Let your mind rest.
  • Limit the time spent dwelling on and talking about the problem. Just as not talking about it at all makes it worse by suppressing it into the body, so talking about your problem obsessively can keep you panicked. Your discussions should be brief and you should only confide in a positive, non-advising friend, family member, and your counselor.
  • Give yourself healthy treats. A nap, a novel, or signing up for a class can be a little lift to help you get through a hard time.
  • Examine the problem on paper. Write down how you feel for a few minutes to release the problem. Things look different on paper than in your head!
  • Let yourself grieve. Grief is a natural and necessary process when facing a loss, whether you have lost a job, a person, a lifestyle, or a marriage. Crying is important for release of cortisol, a damaging hormone that builds in the body during stress.
  • Avoid negative people. There will always be those who are determined to “spread the virus” of negativity. Some people get a sense of importance from repeating bad news and the media depends on bad news for ratings! Be wise about who gets your attention.

There is always something hopeful to say, something to be grateful for. Fix your attention on what you appreciate, and more good things will come along!

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