Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Meditation Works

People often ask, "Why is meditation helpful?"  There is mounting scientific evidence that shows how meditation effects brain function and psychological well being. What I think is most helpful about meditation is the influence and impact it can have on the way you relate to your mind. For clients who struggle with anxiety and depression this tool can be enormously helpful.

Those who learn to meditate regularly, even if it is for only 10 minutes a day,  find that the process of reflecting on thoughts, feelings, and sensations with a mindful approach not only quiets the mind while doing the meditation, but perhaps more importantly, it also can change the way one relates to the mind in day to day life.  Not only does the quieting of the mind persist beyond the time of the experience,  but for many who practice meditation with some regularity, there is a shift that occurs in how one views one's own internal world. An example here can illustrate what I am describing.

Often the focus of a particular meditative practice is on the breath.  What most of us find when we sit in silence for a few moments trying to bring our attention to the breath is that thoughts 'interfere" or "intrude" on the process.  Sometimes when I meditate I find that a single thought enters my mind and returning to the breath can be quite simple.  Other times when I meditate a narrative can develop that is quite involved.  Sometimes my mind will get lost or caught up in attempts at solving a problem, other times I might discover that I am thinking about what needs to be put on the grocery list.   Whatever it is, during these moments my mind is not being particularly mindful as evidenced by the fact that it isn't focusing on the breath.

When doing mindful meditations one is encouraged to notice the thought or thoughts, and then simply return to the breath.  By learning this process one also recognizes that so many of our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are simply manifestations of the mind.  Unfortunately many of us relate to these internal experiences as if they are reality and for some this can lead to negative emotional responses that can ultimately lead to significant issues with mood.

For instance, the thoughts of the anxious parent who creates "what if" scenarios feels a sense of worry and dread as they go through their daily life.  They may worry that their child is going to be bullied at school, or they may worry that their child will never have any friends.  These thoughts create anxiety.  The mindful meditator can learn to recognize that in and of themselves, the thoughts are simply thoughts.  Their value is nothing more or less than that.  This approach to thoughts, feelings, and perceptions can result in a dramatic reduction in anxiety and for someone who suffers from that malady it can be enormously helpful.

Many people find that it is difficult to create a time and space daily for meditation.  If that is the case and you are not inclined to do a daily practice, mindfulness approaches can still be helpful.  The example I like to use is the next time you are feeling stressed because you are late for something, shift the focus of your mind to your breath.  Notice where the breath is as you inhale and exhale.  You can also focus on other sensations in the body.   If you are in line at the store and you need to be somewhere else focus your mind on the body.  Consider the sensation of your feet touching the floor, or examine the the texture of the objects in your hands. When you discipline yourself to focus the mind on these things you will notice a momentary relief and you may very well find that there is a reduction in the stress that you are feeling.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Do you worry about your drinking habits?

I often work with people who express concerns about the amount of alcohol they consume.  There is mounting evidence that alcohol addiction and dependence is growing amongst the middle aged population and there is a high probability that the increasing use of alcohol in our society is contributing to a variety of medical conditions that are becoming more and more life limiting.  For many people alcohol intake is "managed," but with repercussions.  For those who "drink too much" yet who are quite "functional," there is a toll to be paid.  For these drinkers, the all too often hangover, can impact the quality of family relations, one's sense of wellbeing, and the quality of their work.  Self esteem is often eroded by the struggle associated with failed attempts at abstinence and the ability to live fully "in the moment" is severely impaired by frequent reliance on alcohol.  Needless to say, moderate to heavier drinkers are much more likely to suffer from sleep disorders, depression and anxiety.  I can't tell you how many people I see who have gone on antidepressants or anti anxiety medications to relieve the symptoms of depression and anxiety that are actually caused by too much drinking!

While Alcoholics Anonymous and other treatment approaches have been successful in helping many people, there have been some unfortunate unintended consequences that have resulted from these support programs and treatment approaches.  For instance, one of the concepts behind AA  is that "Alcoholism" is a disease.  On the one hand this has been useful in reducing some of the shame associated with the addiction, but on the other hand, it has made it more difficult for many people to deal with their drinking problems because it would suggest that to stop drinking one has to see oneself as having a disease....a disease that will be with you for the rest of your life.  And for you to overcome the effects of the disease you have to learn to fight your addiction one day at a time for the rest of your life.  It is a rather bleak concept.  For some this has been very helpful, (even life saving), but for others, not so much.

In recent years there has been a growing chorus of people who challenge the "disease concept" as the cause of addiction, and instead focus on the substance as the cause of the addiction.  One has to wonder if this isn't a more balanced and a healthier way to conceptualize this addiction.  People who are challenging the disease concept will often note how interesting it is that we don't talk about people suffering from "Heroinism" or people suffering from "Cocainism" so why do we think that people who become addicted to alcohol have a disease that makes it happen when we don't say that about other substance issues?

What I have found is that it is often much easier for people to address their drinking problems constructively if they can focus on the substance as "the problem."  There are several books and websites on this topic that I have found particularly useful that you might want to explore if you are worried about your drinking and want to do something about it.   HelloSundayMorning is a self help site for people who are trying to moderate or abstain from drinking.  It began and comes from Australia but it has people participating from all over the world.  There is a lot of support available on the site and there are many resources as well.  High Sobriety is a book by Jill Stark that you might find interesting as an introductory read.  Feel free to reach out to me if you think I can provide you with any more resources or help.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Underlying factors in relationship problems.

One of the very interesting outcomes of therapy is the insight gained by an individual as they look at their relationship issues from a new perspective. A question that I frequently address in individual counseling as well as when working with couples is "How does your early life experience effect your expectations and assumptions in your current relationship?" I believe that this can be a very important question as it is often the spoken and unspoken expectations that have their origins in our early life experiences that drive conflict in relationships.

We are all influenced by our past. Typically it is better to as aware as possible of the ways that those influences are effecting our reactions in our current relationships. It is often the things that we are not conscious of from our past that drive behaviors which interfere with resolving conflicts and developing greater intimacy in the present.

This concept can be quite simple and quite complex. If "Sally" grew up with a father who was a handyman around the house, a true wizard at tackling large and small home improvement jobs, there might come a time when frustrations would mount to unacceptable levels if it turns out that husband "Frank" has the handyman IQ of a 20. The frustration Sally might experience is likely to be be intensified by her life experience which taught her to expect that the "man of the house" should be able to fix all home repairs.

I have found that when clients make the connection, in this case that Frank is very different from Sally's father, it reduces some of the tension in everyday life, and makes it more possible to come up with alternative solutions to practical problems.

One of the values of exploring these kinds of questions within the context of couples counseling is that it can lead to a greater and greater knowledge of oneself in addition to a better understanding of one's partner. Couples who are able to develop the ability to stand back and look at themselves openly and reflectively, especially during times of conflict, develop more of a sense of connection in part because empathy and insight replaces blame and criticism.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Can I get help for my relationship when my partner won't go to counseling?

I am often asked how you can fix relationship problems when your spouse or loved one isn't interested in attending counseling sessions with you. Usually couples have individual issues that can be addressed in individual counseling that can benefit the relationship. In fact there are many couples who learn to get along better through their work with an individual therapist than they do in couples counseling. For instance, many people struggle with the problem of not knowing how and when to express their frustration towards a spouse or significant other. Some people find that they withhold thoughts and feelings and as a result feel greater and greater distance from their loved one. Individual counseling can be very helpful in addressing this kind of issue and can therefore have a direct impact on the relationship. It is also true that most mental health issues, like anxiety and depression have the potential of negatively effecting a relatioship. For instance when anxiety is an issue, anxiety reduction techniques for the person suffering from the condition can go a long way towards helping a relationship to get onto a better footing. There are also some issues that couples find difficult to talk about and shy away from in couples counseling in order to avoiding the issues. Once in individual counseling, it is sometimes possible to find the words and ways to communicate that heretofore had seemed impossible.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

"Why can't he get it?"

Frustration, anger and sadness are some of the feelings that I hear women express when talking about the day to day struggles with their partners. Women often come in to therapy because they have gotten to a point where they feel so frustrated with their spouse that they either want to "hurt him," or they want to end the relationship. Most people would rather avoid doing either and so therapy is seen as a last ditch effort to make repairs that will turn things around. Obviously it is better when an individual comes into therapy earlier rather than later but there are many reasons why people don't. Sometimes it is pride, sometimes it is financial, sometimes it is shame or denial. I find that often people choose to wait to come into therapy because they think they can resolve the problem on their own without the help of another person. What many people discover is that they keep trying to "fix the problem" by trying the same thing over and over again and we all know what that leads to.
So what helps women who have a relationship that evokes the question, "Why can't he get it?" There is no one answer to this question. However, women who feel frustrated with their spouse or partner may need some simple suggestions that will help their partner to focus better on their needs. There are times when individual sessions will lead to greater self understanding and insight which indirectly reduces some of the frustration engendered by a relationship. At times, but not always, it may be a good idea to try to include the partner in the counseling. When a partner is reluctant at first to attend therapy I usually suggest that we gradually develop a strategy that will help them to eventually feel comfortable about joining us for a meeting. Encouraging a partner to attend couples sessions is often less difficult than it appears.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Making Connections to the Past: Lowering the Temperature in Relationships!

Many clients use psychotherapy to talk about present day conflicts with spouses, co-workers, friends, etc. If a client is recognizing that they are reacting more strongly to a situation than they feel is appropriate to the given situation, then I will sometimes ask if there is anything about the current situation that reminds them of an earlier time in life. Not only does this open up an opportunity to explore one's life more deeply, but it also provides the client with an opportunity for greater insight into the effect of one's past on the present. One of the values of psychotherapy is to help clients to learn how to react in the present without baggage from the past. Perhaps an example is the best way to describe how this process works.
Let's say that as a child you grew up in a home where your mother was very manipulative and controlling. Instead of being direct and clear about her wants, she would use coercion and shaming to get you to do many of the things that are often expected of children. Your response to this was to comply but it was not without a cost to your emotional development.
Now, today when you are in a subordinate relationship with a supervisor who also tends to be manipulative you find that all you want to do is get away from this person. Your reaction to her is to either run away or to yell and scream. If you are able to make the connection to the past, in this instance by realizing that your supervisor is reminding you of a particular part of your mother's personality, or of particular experiences growing up, and if you can begin to use that knowledge to help you to realize that your reactions to the supervisor are being inflated by your own history, you might start to find that there are ways of responding to her that you hadn't previously realized. This is a good example of where coping mechanisms that developed in childhood out of neccessity may not be particularly helpful as an adult and can be useful to examine in order to develop a greater range of choices in the present.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Listen (If this is your first time visiting remember to read threads from the bottom up)

Many couples come to me wanting help with "communication problems." Soon after beginning work with a new couple I frequently teach a listening exercise that I encourage couples to use at home. I call it a "paraphrasing exercise" because that is the best description for what it is. Simply put, the exercise requires each individual to listen and rephrase back to the speaker the content of what the speaker is stating. Typically there are two forms of paraphrasing, one is based on the emotional intent of the speaker and the other has more to do with the descriptive content. Both are important, but usually it is when a person paraphrases emotional content that we as speakers feel most understood. Some couples find this experience to be quite easy and natural, while others can struggle heartily with it. For those who have difficulty, the exercise is usually especially helpful.
Many clients have commented that the exercise made them realize how much they were focusing on an answer or a defense to their partner's statement, rather than making an effort to understand what it is that there partner thinks and feels. It then becomes obvious that that there is no way that you can truly listen if you are already formulating a response. I believe that listening is the first building block to good communication so if listening is done well you can be pretty sure that the communication between parties will be off to a good start.