Hold on to your Power!

Imagine yourself driving to work one sunny morning. It’s been a good morning and you’re content (in your own peaceful thoughts). Then the car in the next lane aggressively moves into your lane ahead of you and the driver suddenly brakes! You break hard to avoid contact as the articles on your console (sunglasses, phone) fall to the floor. How do you react? Do you get angry or do you brush it off?

Every day, our interpretation and reaction to external events impacts the way we feel. You see, it’s not the actual event that causes us to feel a certain way, it’s how we interpret it. Imagine all of us walking (or driving) around with a big filter over our heads.  Everything that enters into our experience has to go through this filter. The filter is made up of our beliefs, past experiences, knowledge, personality, influences, where we live, etc.

When I experience something, my filter interprets what I just experienced.  In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), this interpretation happens though what are called automatic thoughts. Sometimes, my automatic thoughts allow me to experience something fully and productively, and other times my automatic thoughts are twisted so they impact me negatively. Through CBT, people learn to identify and impact these automatic thoughts to help them experience life in a healthy way and feel better.

Dr. Christian Conte (www.drchristianconte.com) provides a tool for changing the way we react and he uses the driving example (above). Dr. Conte suggests using a physical (or visual) reminder to remain in control. As your driving, your peace of mind is your power and you control it. You want to keep control of your power. Imagine that while driving, you hold this power in your steering wheel. So now, you physically have a grip on it when the car cuts you off and slams on the breaks. You have two options.

One option is to let your anger take over. You can curse loudly at the driver, waving your fist and honking your horn. You may think about how “bleeping” inconsiderate the driver is and how you can’t believe anyone would do that. In this case, you have handed over control of your power (your peace of mind) to the external event. You have tossed your steering wheel into the other car! You will probably carry anger for the rest of your drive. In fact, you may take it with you when you get to work, and even when you get home and tell the story at the dinner table. The anger still effects you all day long!

Your second option is to look at your steering wheel recalling that it holds your power (your peace of mind) and you don’t want to let go. Acknowledge that the other driver did something dangerous, but not on purpose. There are many possible reasons (maybe he didn’t see you, maybe he is in a hurry, maybe he is just a bad driver). Whatever the reason, the driver isn’t out to ruin your day. By holding onto your power, you can see the situation for what it is and not as a personal attack. You can react productively, and quickly return to your content state of mind.

CBT provides many tools to help us feel better.  Give this one a try next time you’re behind the wheel!

Chris Guzniczak

Licensed Professional Counselor Intern

Under Supervision of Tiffany Smith LPC-S, LMFT-S, NCC

What’s Your Therapy?

As I lace up my shoes, a nagging voice in the back of my head reminds me of how busy I am. I am thinking about project deadlines and meetings I have in the afternoon. This same voice tells me that I really don’t feel like walking out the door and going for a jog. After all, I really don’t have time for this today and it’s too hot outside to run.  Fortunately, I recognize this voice and I know that when I step outside the voice will grow quieter. As I open the door and breathe in the fresh air, something happens. It’s like turning down the volume on the craziness going on in my head, and readjusting my attention to my surroundings. I can feel my mood lift as I notice the warmth of the air and the bright sunlight. Sure, it’s not perfect running weather, but it feels good to step outside, leaving my worries in the house as I close the door. I turn on my music and the beat takes me further away from the morning rush. As I jog out of my neighborhood, I notice how my legs feel, and how the warm pavement under my shoes presses against the soles of my feet. I notice the sound of wind blowing through the leaves and the birds chirping high in the trees. My breathing changes as I pull oxygen from deeper in my lungs and my whole body begins to warm up.

Over the next few miles, my thoughts may take me back to the busyness of life.  However, it’s as if everything has slowed down for me. I can think with better clarity as if I am looking down at my day from above.  I can organize my thoughts better.  Some days, my thoughts take me into deep contemplation, other days I just enjoy the run and listen to the music.

Running is therapy for me and we can look at the impact it has on my brain (specifically, the basal ganglia) for some possible answers why.  According to Daniel G Amen, M.D. in the book, Change your brain, change your life, “excessive basal ganglia activity resets the body’s idle to a revved-up level and can make people feel anxious, nervous, tense, and pessimistic”. Dr. Amen describes a few techniques to set your basal ganglia to a relaxed, healthy level. Three of these techniques are using guided imagery (a relaxation exercise), practicing diaphragmatic breathing exercises, and through meditation. These techniques all involve shifting attention to new senses, rhythmic motions and breathing, and relaxing (or refocusing) your mind. Similarly, when clients come into counseling for anxiety or anger, it often makes sense to begin with a mindfulness exercise to relax and lower the volume of the noise in our heads. Simple relaxation activities literally heal the brain!

One of the traps we experience when we feel down or stressed, is waiting to be in the mood to do something therapeutic. We think that once we feel like going for a jog, then we’ll go and feel better. This results in never grabbing those running shoes.  That’s why something that sounds so simple (doing something therapeutic for me), is in fact quite difficult for many of us to do!  We listen to the negative thoughts in our head that tell us we’re too busy, or too tired to do something for me.  But it’s the activity that makes us feel better, lifts our mood, and gives us more clarity.  Whether it’s the mindfulness of yoga, the peacefulness of prayer, or the endorphins from exercise we all need a dose of therapy regularly.

So what do you find therapeutic? What do you do to reset your basal ganglia (okay, that’s just fun to say). Whether you walk, read, pray, play music, dance, write in a journal, call a friend, or go for a jog, find activities that work for you. If you are feeling down or anxious, now is the time to start. If you don’t know where to begin, try out a couple of these simple relaxation techniques.  I’m not trying to suggest that this is the answer to all of the stress in our lives.  The human brain is complex beyond our understanding in many ways. But I promise you that a little self-therapy can only help you feel like YOU.  Ask for help if you need help, and find YOUR therapy!!

Chris Guzniczak

Licensed Professional Counselor Intern

Under Supervision of Tiffany Smith LPC-S, LMFT-S, NCC

Are kids really that stressed?

Have you ever seen this story play out?  A teenager, (we’ll name him Joey), comes home from school looking exhausted. He sits on the couch and gasps, “I’m so overwhelmed with school right now I just want to sit here and do nothing.”  Dad looks at him with a loving, but confused smile and says, “well, if you want to know what being overwhelmed feels like consider when I was you age and every day I had to walk 12 blocks to school, then work at the mill after school, then go home and clean the kitchen, and watch my sisters.”  Dad’s trying to make Joey feel better by reminding him that things aren’t so hard, and he’s got a good point about his own life being very difficult. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help Joey feel any better. In fact, now Joey can add guilt to the list of emotions he already has piling up in his head.

Are teenagers today really that stressed. Let’s look at a couple of the stressors in their lives. In the book, Stress Free Kids, Lori Lite says it perfectly; “With an unprecedented amount of pressure to give your children the best education, it’s easy to forget that your kids are incredible emotional, spiritual, social, and physical beings. Childhood should not be a stress-filled race to see who can read the most books, write the longest paper, and count to 100 in seven different languages.”

The strongest stressor in our teenagers’ lives is a culture of perfectionism.  Many great historians and business leaders have tried to teach us the importance of failure.  Examples include Abe Lincoln, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, and even the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Eloise Ristad said “When we give ourselves the permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.” Yet, if we look at the criteria set forth by universities in the United States, we find requirements driving the exact opposite behavior. The expectation on students is perfection in the form of grade point averages and standardized tests.  These requirements have since permeated through our high schools, middle schools, and into homes. In fact, a number of recent studies have pointed to academics as the highest source of stress for teens. Well-meaning parents try to help, but often by helping they are only validating the need for perfection. While high achievement is a worthy goal, it is critical for teens to know that their achievements do NOT equate to their self-worth. Every child (and adult) on this earth is worthy of love and joy. Period.

Then, the stress of school is compounded by the social pressures kids deal with social media. Remember telling your kids this advice? “Don’t say anything you might regret in social media because once it’s out there, it’s out there forever.” While this is still sound advice (and I give it to my kids all the time), it has gotten more difficult to follow because digital communication has become the norm.  It’s literally how people communicate. While adults keep relationships with people on Facebook, teenagers are communicating via their own social sites, text, and apps.  This means that private conversations aren’t really private anymore. The pressure to have a positive social image is tremendous and too often, our kids are equating social image to their self-worth. Just look at Instagram streaks!  Kids (like adults) have fewer close relationships today and tend to rely more heavily on quantity vs quality.  Generally speaking, a stressed teenager with close friends has a healthy outlet to vent and share (and many don’t).

If you’re a parent of a teen and your reading this, you’re probably asking “well, what can I do?”  There’s an interesting paradox when it comes to helping people that are anxious or depressed. Simply put, the more you try to help, the less effective you are at actually helping.  Strange, huh? When a person feels really bad, they need one thing before they will feel better. I’ll give you a hint… it’s not a solution to their problem. It’s someone that cares enough to listen and understand how they feel. It’s someone to validate their feelings so that they know that they are not alone.

When a teenager walks in the door from school feeling overwhelmed with everything being thrown at them like; grades, sports, friends, college, work, social media, and (of course) parents, the patent’s job is to listen.  I mean really listen.  Put yourself in your child’s shoes and ask questions so that you really understand how he or she feels. Hear the truth in what your child is saying instead of discounting what you think is inaccurate. Don’t dismiss your child’s feelings as being dramatic or complaining. Validate how (s)he feels and give assurance that you understand.  Maybe say how brave (s)he is for working so hard despite everything being thrown their way.  Don’t jump into problem solving until your child wants your help.

If you are struggling with your relationship, the best thing you can do is to spend time together (even if they push back). According to a recent Gallup poll about half of US families eat dinner together most week nights. Be one of those families.

Lastly, let your children know that is is OK to make mistakes (and mean it). Striving for high achievement is important, but it becomes unhealthy when a child equates their self-worth based on achievements.

So, are teens really more stressed than they were fifty years ago? Let’s just agree that they have stress in different forms, and it’s as real as it was fifty years ago.

Chris Guzniczak

Licensed Professional Counselor Intern

Under Supervision of Tiffany Smith LPC-S, LMFT-S, NCC

Living a more fulfilling life

This weekend, as my wife and I picked the kids up from the church retreat, I felt a sense of inner joy. I watched them get off of the buses along with dozens of other kids.  They smiled as they joked with friends and hugged goodbyes.  In this moment, I experienced fulfillment.  If someone happened to ask me what my purpose in life was, I probably would have pointed at the scene that played out in front of me.

What does it mean to live a more fulfilling life? Fulfillment is very personal because we shape it through our own belief systems, our cultures, and our values. That said, it is one of the basic needs that we all have as human beings. In the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl quotes the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”

What keeps us from living a fulfilled life? Well, that sounds like a great question to ponder in a series of blogs.  Over the coming weeks, I’ll write about books and articles on the subject, with the intention of exploring the topic through reflections, stories, and examples. Why reflections and stories you ask? Well, it’s a great way to share ideas and it’s also how we learn.  Think back to your favorite teachers in school. The best teachers can take any subject and bring it to life through stories and examples to which students can relate.  Having a topic explained in a meaningful context for the individual students helps them understand concepts and remember the content. We all wear lenses from our own life experiences which creates our own personal context.  Therefore, as we ingest new information, we try to fit the new information into our personal context (lenses). If successful, the chances of remembering increase exponentially.

So, back to writing a blog about living a more fulfilling life. Things that keep us from happiness are many; including stress, anxiety, depression, toxic relationships, and lacking the time to understand what matters. Of course, this is a short list, but you get the point. We live in this crazy world for a short time together, and I just want to do my part to help where I can. This is another way that I find fulfillment, I suppose.  In Man’s Search for Meaning, when asked about the meaning of life for himself, Viktor E. Frankl replied, “The meaning of your life is to help others find meaning in theirs.”

We’ll discuss important topics with you (the reader) in mind, and hopefully, bring you along towards a life that brings you more joy and meaning. Welcome to the journey!!

Chris Guzniczak

Licensed Professional Counselor Intern

Under Supervision of Tiffany Smith LPC-S, LMFT-S, NCC