#TBT: Thanksgiving and Gratitude

As the winter holiday season approaches I want to share with you some holiday coping themed posts from years past. Holidays are often high stress times for trauma survivors, or anyone who has a complicated relationship with family of origin!

Let’s get proactive and plan how to cope with a potentially painful time of year!

Thanksgiving and Gratitude

Thanksgiving is upon us. Like any holiday, it can be painful and lonely rather than enjoyable for  trauma survivors or any who are socially isolated or disconnected from their families. With its intense focus on food, Thanksgiving can also be loaded for those struggling with eating disorders. Then there is the problematic history of the holiday itself.  For some, it is even a National Day of Mourning:

Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in the National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native people to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.

What I have been thinking about lately is a literal read of the name Thanksgiving. I’ve written before about how important tradition and ritual are for us humans. One thing I find meaningful at this time is reflecting upon the things I am thankful for, large and small.

I know how often things like positive thinking or gratitude are urged upon trauma survivors or those experiencing depression as if there is some simple tool like this to fix things. I know that can come across as insensitive and victim blaming. There is no quick fix. Yet research and my personal experience suggest there can be great value in focusing on even the smallest of things we are grateful for in our lives. It is just one more tool to consider using on your healing path.

For example,  Emmons & McCullough have written extensively on the subject of how gratitude can impact mental health. In their Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness they reported the following results:

  • In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
  • A related benefit was observed in the realm of personal goal attainment:  Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.
  • A daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others).  There was no difference in levels of unpleasant emotions reported in the three groups.
  • Participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to the hassles or social comparison condition.
  • In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality, relative to a control group.

How can you reap the benefits of gratitude?

What about creating a Thanksgiving tradition of sharing things you are thankful for with those sharing your meal?

Why limit it to one time of year? Many find benefit from a more regular practice of focusing on gratitude, perhaps in the form of a gratitude journal. Looking back on this when you are struggling can provide another mood boost.

Are you thankful for loved ones? Don’t forget to tell them! Make it specific. What do you value about each important person in your life? What ways have they enriched you? We value praise the most when it is individualized and specific. Not only will you reap the benefit of gratitude, you enhance your connection to others with this sort of sharing.

Don’t forget yourself. This can be especially challenging for many people in my practice. Start somewhere, no matter how small! Can you be thankful for your sense of humor? Your perseverance? Your very ability to survive?

Don’t forget the small things. Are you thankful for birds singing in the yard? The cute antics of a pet? A sunny day after a period of gloom? All these count.

This year I am reflecting on how grateful I am to have started blogging. It has enriched and broadened my life in countless ways. I am thankful for the new connections it has lead to and the opportunities it provides to keep learning from other trauma therapists, survivors and activists. So in other words, if you are reading this, I am thankful for you!

Wishing you peace, loving connections and meaningful celebrations.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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Mindful Monday: Healing

I wanted to share one of my favorite quotes on healing with you today for Mindful Monday. You can turn it into a mindfulness practice by following these steps.

 

Mindful Monday: Healing

How does this fit with you own healing process? Feel free to share your thoughts!

 

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#TBT: Mindful Holidays

Continuing my series on holiday coping strategies, I am sharing this on mindfulness-based approaches.

Mindful Holidays

I was so taken with one of the holiday coping strategy links I posted in Giving Thanks at Thanksgiving that I want to devote a separate post to highlight it in more detail. 4 Quick Mindfulness Techniques originates from Dr. Elisha Goldstein’s fantastic blog, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. It is a blog well worth subscribing to for trauma survivors or anyone wanting to be more present in their lives!

The four techniques ( via Therese J. Borchard) are as follows:

1. RAIN.

In his blog “Difficult Emotions: One Approach You’ll Want to Try,” Dr. Goldstein writes:

In the mindfulness circles the acronym R.A.I.N has floated around to support people in dealing with difficult emotions. It has been found in Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance, Jack Kornfield has said it, and you will find it the upcoming Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook that I have co-authored with Bob Stahl, Ph.D (February, 2010). Here is a sneak peek:

“R” is to recognize when a strong emotion is present. “A” is to allow or acknowledge that it is indeed there. “I” is to investigate and bring self-inquiry to the body, feelings, and mind, and “N” is to non-identify with what’s there. This non-identification is very useful in that it helps to deflate the story and cultivates wise understanding in the recognition that the emotion is just another passing mind state and not a definition of who you are. Just like seeing a movie, standing back and watching the actors play out their dramas, by non-identifying with your story and seeing it as impermanent, this will help assist in loosening your own tight grip of identification. Utilizing R.A.I. N. as a practice can help you bring space to be with things as they are and grow in deeper understanding of what drives, underlies or fuels our fears, anger, and sadness.

Turning into our emotions can feel a bit foreign since most of us live in such a pain denying culture. Isn’t it time to begin acknowledging stress, anxiety or pain rather than suppressing, repressing, or all-too-quickly medicating it? Can we learn to view these challenges as a rite of passage instead of running away from them?

2. STOP.

Another tip to weave mindfulness into your daily schedule: before work, during lunch, before you walk into your home in the evening, or after you get the kids to bed at night. Writes Goldstein in his post “Stress Got You Down?”:

Creating space to come down from the worried mind and back into the present moment has been shown to be enormously helpful to people. When we are present we have a firmer grasp of all our options and resources which often make us feel better. Next time you find your mind racing with stress, try the acronym S.T.O.P.:

S - Stop what you are doing, put things down for a minute.

T - Take a breath. Breathe normally and naturally and follow your breath coming in and of your nose. You can even say to yourself “in” as you’re breathing in and “out” as you’re breathing out if that helps with concentration.

O - Observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. You can reflect about what is on your mind and also notice that thoughts are not facts and they are not permanent. If the thought arises that you are inadequate, just notice the thought, let it be, and continue on. Notice any emotions that are there and just name them. Recent research out of UCLA says that just naming your emotions can have a calming effect. Then notice your body. Are you standing or sitting? How is your posture? Any aches and pains.

P - Proceed with something that will support you in the moment. Whether that is talking to a friend or just rubbing your shoulders.

3. Walk.

Walking is an easy way to incorporate mindfulness into your day. Heck, even walking to the frig to grab some milk provides 60 seconds of reflection time. So why not squeeze out the mindfulness potential? In his post, “4 Ways to Walk (Mindfully) into Mental Health,” Dr. Goldstein lists four ways we can apply the simple act of walking to mindfulness.

Appreciation - If you are fortunate enough to have the ability to walk, try and remember, it took you over a year to learn how to walk and these legs are often the unsung heroes that take you to and fro day in and day out. Thank your legs for all their efforts.

Grounding - Bring your attention to the sensations of your feet and legs as the heel touches the ground, then the base of the foot, then the toes, and then they lift. You can actually say to yourself, “heel, foot, toes, lift.” This is a way to connect to the action of walking in the present moment.

Open Awareness - Walk slightly slower and begin to open your awareness to all your senses one by one. Sight, sound, taste, feeling, smell. See what is around you, listen to the sounds, taste the air or whatever is in your mouth, feel the warmth, coolness, or breeze on your cheeks, smell the air. Then stop for a moment and see if you can take in all of the senses.

Mantra - As I mentioned in an earlier blog, you can also recite some sayings while taking a few steps. For example, take a few steps and during an in breath say to yourself, “breathing in, I have arrived, breathing out, I am home” or “breathing in, I calm my body, breathing out, I relax”. Or make up your own sayings.

4. Shower.

I actually use this one a lot. Because when the kids were young, my time in the shower was, honest to God, the only time I had to myself. So I was not so green and blasted the hot water for a good five to minutes, pretending I was under a tropical waterfall in Hawaii. In his post, “Turn on the Shower and Reduce Your Stress Today,” Dr. Goldstein writes:

What would happen if instead of thinking about all the plans you had to catch up on while you were in the shower, you took a pause, and then brought your nose to the smell of the soap…and again, just exploring the scent of it with your nose… What would happen if you then brought your attention to just feeling the sensation of the warm water against your skin and the feeling of goose bumps that might be there from the contrast of coming in from the cold? Oh… then the mind drifts back again about who you need to call at work, why are you doing this stupid practice, the upcoming meetings, when you need to pick up your kids, what you need to buy for dinner, as you begin to speed up and the tension mounts. What would happen if you noticed this, said to yourself “there goes my mind again”, and then brought your attention back into the shower where you were right now. How might your experience be different? How might your mood be different when getting out of the shower? Would you be more or less reactive with your family, roommates, or whoever you came in contact with next?

I hope you find something useful here, for holiday coping and in general.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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Mindful Monday: No Explanations Needed

Welcome to Mindful Monday. Feel free to contemplate this quote with the 5-step mindfulness practice.

Mindful Monday: No Explanations

 

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#TBT: Don’t Abandon Yourself

As the winter holiday season approaches I want to share with you some holiday coping themed posts from years past. Holidays are often high stress times for trauma survivors, or anyone who has a complicated relationship with family of origin!

Let’s get proactive and plan how to cope with a potentially painful time of year! I am starting by sharing a resource that no longer lives online in its original form. I am so grateful to have captured it in my archives, as it continues to be such valuable, compassionate guidance for trauma survivors or anyone struggling to stay grounded and safe while engaging with toxic others. Check out the comments on the original too, for some good stuff from my readers!

An Adult Child Abuse Survivor’s Guide to the Holidays

Too late for Thanksgiving, but just in time for coping with the next round of holidays, I discovered An Adult Child Abuse Survivor’s Guide to the Holidays.  This article is so amazing : practical, empowering, empathic with just the right amount of humor. I love the key idea “Don’t Abandon Yourself”. Although written with adult survivors of abuse contending with families of origin, including perpetrators, it really could be invaluable for anyone from a dysfunctional family of any sort. Or even just  useful strategies for keeping in touch with yourself and grounded while dealing with anyone challenging for you.

I like this so very much I want to share an excerpt here. I highly encourage reading it in full. Tremendous thanks to Grace Davis for this gem of a resource.

First, and most importantly, this is the primary principle to follow when you’re in the presence of perpetrators and their allies:

Remember this always –

DO NOT ABANDON YOURSELF.

I can’t say this enough – do not abandon yourself.

You were abandoned as a child. You did not deserve this. No child deserves this. So, as adults, we take care of ourselves as if we are our own precious child. Imagine taking your child-self gently but firmly by their lovely, grubby little hand and getting them out of harm’s way. There are many ways to do this whether you are in the presence of perpetrators and their allies (like your own dismissive and scornful siblings who get angry whenever you mention the legacy and source of your pain) or if you’re in a place where you may be triggered.

The following is listed in no particular order of importance because it’s all important. I respect that some of these ideas may work for you, some may not. As long as you keep that all-encompassing guidance “Do not abandon yourself” in mind, you can take it from there.

Here we go:

Remember who you are TODAY. You are no longer a child. Indeed, there is a hurt child who is alive and well within you. But, now you’re an adult who can make choices.  Don’t forget, you are an adult and you have power over your life.

One of the choices you can make is to not go to the abusive family’s house. You don’t have to go. You can tell them you’re sick if you can’t tell them the actual reason for your absence. It’s okay to “lie” in this situation if fear keeps you from telling the truth of the matter.  It’s not really a lie, though. The abuse was and is responsible for its consequences that you may suffer from – depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder.

If you do “call in sick”, don’t answer the phone if you know your abusive family members are trying to call your cell or land line To this, I say – thank you, technology, for caller ID. Don’t answer the calls from your abusive family members for up to a week. Then, if you must, call back and say you’re feeling better. And, when I say”better”, I mean that you’re probably doing great because you didn’t spend time with people who were not good to you and continue to be bad to you.

If you have to be with abusive family members, do whatever you need to do to stay centered as you cannot abandon yourself and you need to remember who you are today.

Staying centered may involve many tactics:

Go to your abuser’s house with your real family, your husband, your kids, your chosen family of dear friends who believe in you. If you need support and active reminders of who you are now, take your supportive people with you. These people are your true family members who love you, won’t abandon you and remind you of who you are today.

This is a big one – STAY SOBER. I cannot emphasize that enough. If you get drunk or high, you will lose that centered spot. You will relax, that’s true, but it’s a false sense of ease.  Do take your Xanax if necessary but stick to your prescribed dose. The Bloggess will always recommend that you should avoid knocking back handfuls of the Judy Garland Trail Mix. And, there you go, a little Bloggess humor for you on a tough day.

Help in the kitchen. Be involved with the preparation. Do this only if such activities are not triggering. I always do this. I put my head down and work. I set the table, I do the dishes, I cook. I put my head down and work it, like a Zen monk whose practice includes performing chores mindfully. That’s an excellent way to stay centered, pretending to be a Zen monk and doing tasks wholeheartedly.

Sit by a window so you can look outside. When you pull in the outside world as you sit with those who abandoned you, the world becomes that much bigger. There’s more out there, beyond the dark cave of the abuser’s house.

Go beyond looking out the window and get out there in that bigger world. Expand your universe. The abuser’s house or the house with the abusers in it is not the core of the world. The world is beyond that house. In this world there are people who believe in you and love you unconditionally. That world contains your working life where you are valued or perhaps your university studies where you excel. So, go outside for a few minutes and take a walk in the bigger world.

Put your therapist’s number on fast dial. Call anytime. Even if you reach their voice mail, leave a message. Don’t fret if they don’t call back. Instead, revel in the knowledge that you were wise enough to reach out. You asked for help and that action alone is therapeutic.

Keeping your therapist in mind, remember the tricks and tools they have suggested to help you through these tough times. For example, I like to use what all of my therapists taught me –  the classic meditation exercise of sitting comfortably and going to my inner place of refuge. FYI – it’s a beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. Not bad, eh?

Minimize conversation with the perpetrator and anyone who has been abusive to you. Again, you can say you’re not feeling well, you have a headache, you need to be quiet. And, again, you ain’t lying here. That person makes you feel unwell and your head probably hurts when you’re around them.

If you cannot avoid conversations with those people, keep something in your pocket to remind yourself of who you are today. I use a little plastic monkey from the Barrel of Monkeys toy-game. Small and with a defined shape, the monkey reminds me of the relative light heartedness of my life away from the abusers. Also, a monkey is not to be messed with and you can pretend the monkey is throwing feces at whoever needs to be taken down.

You can also keep your cell phone on to Twitter, Facebook or chat or whatever you use for social media interactions. Set it to buzz everytime you get an update. Another reminder of the bigger world out there and that you’re part of that bigger, better world.

Okay, get ready for this big one, survivors:

Remembering you are an adult of legal age, Walk out the door the second things get gnarly. Just go.

Everyone, no matter how badaas and brave they seem to be, is scared shitless to do this.  I was scared to do this. But, I’ve done it and I’ll do it again if I need to  because it felt exhilarating, liberating and life affirming.

Don’t leave yelling, but if you do, try to cry, yell some more or laugh really hard once you’re out the door to release what is truly an emotional atomic bomb full of energy. Really try to do that before you get in the car. Do not drive home in an intense emotional state as you are not centered and in control. Respect your anger and anguish and give it time to release and subside. You will feel better and that will help you think clearly as you operate that moving vehicle.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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