Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Individual + Couple's Therapy=Success

Couples in joint counseling are sometimes surprised when I recommend that one -- or both -- members also initiate individual counseling with their own therapists. Some people worry that spending time in solo sessions will create further distance in the relationship, providing a space for secrets or avoidance of tough couples' issues. Occasionally, I hear clients say that they feel my recommendation is code for "There's something wrong with you. Go get fixed in individual therapy before you can expect your marriage to work. " In reality, individual therapy is an effective adjunct to couple's work, and is a common suggestion made by therapists treating marital discord.


As I get to know each member of a couple in joint therapy, I may notice individual issues that may be affecting or impeding their progress. Depression, anxiety, trauma, and  family of origin issues can muddy the dynamic between lovers. Often, the individual struggling with these issues can use individual sessions to become aware of and heal these components, allowing couple's work to move along in a more timely fashion. In addition, participants may not be yet ready for the vulnerability and transparency required for effective couple's work. Having an individual therapist allows each person a safe stage to vent, complain, and explore fear, anger and disappointment, until he or she is able to voice these experiences in ways that help bring the couple greater awareness and intimacy, instead of further damage. Finally, couple's work is multilayered, complex and intense. Truly, three clients are in the room: each member of the couple, and the relationship itself. Having a "team" of professionals to offer feedback and provide varied perspectives and interventions helps ensure the most comprehensive view of how to help a couple create a relationship of resiliency, trust and fulfillment.

Stressed? It Could Be...Eustress

We expect the symptoms of distress when we are under pressure, anticipating a negative event or feeling burdened with excessive expectations. But we can also experience anxiety, muscle tension, headaches, irritability, fitful sleep -- as well as a slew of other stress reactions -- as a result of Eustress, which is defined as positive life events that bring with them an increase in stress. Weddings, a long-awaited pregnancy, holidays -- these experiences can create an increase in the release of cortisol, a stress hormone, as surely as more negative life events like loss or trauma.  Turns out our bodies don't necessarily know the difference between anticipatory anxiety and dread. We may find ourselves suffering from a migraine the night of  our engagement party, or experiencing anxiety and sleepless nights after receiving a long-deserved promotion. It's not that we don't appreciate our good tidings; we are simply wired to react with similar somatic responses to sometimes widely disparate occurrences. When you become aware of a celebration looming on your calendar, take stock of your body's wisdom. Try getting some extra sleep the days before the event. Maintain a high water intake, and try to keep your exercise commitment to burn off some of the stress hormones and muscle tension. Incorporate stretching exercises into your daily routine, and jot notes of all the highlights your are anticipating to free up some brain space. We all deserve to revel in the achievements and high points that make life memorable. By focusing on a little preventive self-maintenance, we can minimize our stress and be poised to be fully present to all the revelry that's coming our way. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Recovery Begins with "C"

Many people think recovery from addiction begins with a stint in rehab. Or that recovery commences when the addict hits "rock bottom." Or even that abstinence from one's drug of choice is the key to recovering a healthy life. But many "12-Steppers" (members of 12-step support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, etc.) will attest that true recovery comes from being part of a healthy COMMUNITY.


Choosing sobriety is the first "entrance pass" into recovery, but most recovering addicts maintain that it's the work done within, and for, one's sober community that bolsters recovery and provides a firm foundation from which the addict can move forward confidently into a healthier way of being in the world.

The community of a 12-step group provides:

1. Accountability.   Surrounding ourselves with people with the same challenges provides a mirroring process, allowing our cohort to hold us accountable for doing "the next right thing" and to encourage us to stay honest and humble.
2. Healthy socializing. Try as they might, addicts cannot continue to hang out with friends who use and still maintain sobriety. A sober community offers opportunities to connect with others with similar values, at events void of drugs and alcohol.
3. Service. A key component to recovery is giving back to one's community. Whether that means making coffee before a meeting, taking a phone call from a struggling friend, or driving a fellow group member to an event, serving others is a consistent reminder that the world isn't "all about us." We discover that being a part of a community, having others rely on us, builds self-esteem and fights isolation.
4. Reinforcement from people who "get it." Addicts often feel unique and misunderstood. Surrounding ourselves with other addicts who understand the fears, shame and lost opportunities endemic to life in addiction is a solace most addicts deeply appreciate.
5. Reminders. Our sober community, through other addicts sharing their stories, provides unceasing  reminders of how easily we can fall back into bad habits, as well as offering a road map for how others have maintained success.
6. Spirituality. Some people's experiences of organized religion have created shame or guilt for the individual, which blocks true healing. A sober community offers a place to learn and practice one's own unique spirituality, in an environment of support and unconditional acceptance. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Let It Go

Although my son is well past the Disney-age set, I have not been immune to the force of the cultural phenomenon of the Frozen movie, specifically it's omnipresent anthem "Let It Go." I wouldn't originally have considered Princesses Elsa and Anna to be Zen aficionados, but the message about learning to leave behind what no longer serves us is applicable to everyone. Buddhists consider "clinging" to be the root of all suffering--in essence, trying to hold on to things, people, behaviors, even thoughts, will lead to frustration, disappointment and pain. Letting go can be a challenge for the most resolute of souls. But with practice, we will discover that unclenching our fists from around whatever we are convinced we so dearly need  leads us to enlightenment, peace and freedom.


Not sure where to start? Try some of these techniques to practice letting go:

1. If you are troubled by shame from your past, negative thoughts about yourself or others, or long-carried anger, try writing it down. Put pen to paper and, in as much detail as possible, describe the thoughts, feelings or events you'd like to leave behind. Then rip up the paper into tiny pieces and throw them away. Or even better, burn the paper to ash, allowing the painful words to literally "go up in smoke."

2. Buddhist meditation practice may involve noticing our thoughts and learning to release them without judgement. Try picturing the person, event, feeling or thought that is troubling. Imagine "touching" them lightly, either physically or energetically, and allowing them to float away into the air, dissolving slowly into the ether.

3. Imagine standing at the edge of a pool of water. Cast your thoughts, pain or shame into the current, and watch the waves carry them away, engulfing them until they are a part of  the waves.

4. Imagine holding the thoughts or feelings in your clenched fists. Flex your hands and arms as if you need to hold on to those ideas for dear life. Then slowly open your fists, allowing the tension to drain from your hands and arms as the painful material leaves your possession. Feel the relief that comes with the release.

Letting go is not for the faint of heart, but neither do we need to have a crown and title to practice this essential action.  Even attempting to let go is a form of "un-clinging"-- an unclenching from fear and doubt as we try something new.