Exercising gratitude

Its that time of year where we in the US start focusing on being thankful in preparation for Thanksgiving. I see many people post their daily November updates on something for which they are grateful and as a walk-and-talk therapist here in Georgia I am thankful for the cooler temperatures and the colors of the changing leaves. Claiming something daily for which we are thankful during the month of November is a wonderful practice; however, gratitude is something on which we should not just save focus for a single month a year.

Why, you ask? Because exercising gratitude has multiple health benefits! Yes! According to Harvard Health it can help improve mood including improving overall happiness and reducing depression. It can also help individuals overcome adversity, as well as helping improve physical health.

One recommendation I frequently give my clients is creating a gratitude journal where they record items from their daily lives for which they are grateful, or at the very least start and end each day being mindful of a few things for which they are thankful. Sometimes, in the midst of their current circumstances this can be difficult. And sometimes it requires some creativity to reframe their circumstances to find some positive. This is one of the beauties of exercising gratitude. It helps us create new neural pathways to notice the positive rather than settle on our automatic negative bias.

So in this season of thanks keep on documenting the things for which you’re thankful…and maybe try to carry that forward into the New Year!!!

Two steps forward or three steps back? Sometimes both!

Therapy can be messy. Although it is designed to help people feel better, think more clearly, and act with more purpose, sometimes through the process of therapy, especially in the early stages things can get worse before they get better…especially when there is more than one person involved. And there is ALWAYS more than one person involved. How so?

Clients, even individual clients, bring all of their systems into therapy. They bring their family, their friends, their social support network, their work relationships, and even their enemies into therapy with them. The events of their lives and their interactions with others over the course of a lifetime, combined with their unique personality serve to shape the lens through which they view their circumstances both good and bad. The same can be said about all those with whom they interact. We all have our personal lens. We all have our personal morals, truths, and sense of right versus wrong. For some these are very black and white. For others everything hangs in an atmosphere of various shades of gray. And inevitably the intersection of our very different lenses can be a potential source of stress/distress.

Therapy serves as a safe place to examine this stress and these systems…a place to make sense of the past, the present, and to help shape a plan for the future with the understanding that nothing is certain.

And although for some a single therapy session can serve as a “quick fix” for most that is not the case. In addition, clients often experience a period, or periods, of things being worse before they get better. Why?

On reason why is that what most people believe to be the overall issue is merely just the tip of the iceberg. Therapy helps people see beneath the surface, or to peel back layers to see what else may be going on underneath. The presenting issue may merely be a symptom of something that goes much deeper.

Another reason why is all those other people/systems I mentioned earlier. When someone enters therapy and begins to change himself or herself inevitably they also begin to change aspects of each of their systems. For example, when someone starts learning to speak up for themselves their interactions change. This is uncomfortable for others who are used to relating in a specific way. Change in one person necessarily incites the need for change in another. Yet systems seek to maintain homeostasis. What does this mean? This means the rest of the system puts pressure on the part that is trying to change to stop and stay the same, to go back to the original way of relating.

When a person in therapy begins to unearth patterns of living, working, doing, feeling, thinking, and behaving that no longer serve them well and starts implementing new patterns it has the potential to disrupt all his/her systems. This is where things can get messy and can be a critical point of therapy: people often decide its too painful to continue and stop therapy, or this is where they experience a breakthrough.

Unlike other professions where a trained expert comes in and repairs something and makes it “good as new” therapy is a collaborative effort that requires teamwork between therapist and client. The client has to be willing to roll up his/her sleeves and do some work themselves. This may mean greater personal discomfort at least for a while, and probably some discomfort for others. It can mean taking three steps backwards before being able to make any progress forwards. It can feel like trudging through mud. But, any movement is better than being stuck. Even temporary backward movement is progress.

Good therapists/counselors will let their clients know that although they seek to incorporate the latest, evidence-based theories and practices therapy is imperfect; they are not able to make guarantees. However, the person willing to engage in therapy is much more likely to experience a change than those unwilling to do so. At the very least, anyone willing to engage will gain a greater understanding of why their systems function they way they do. At that point they have the choice of accepting things the way they are or moving forward with their own change.

That first step

I know I don’t look like a runner, but I am, in fact, a runner. Runners come in all shapes and sizes. I’m not a lean, 5-minute-mile runner, but I run and that makes me a runner. If you had told me many years ago I would be a runner I would have laughed in your face. And yet, I have a rack full of medals and a stash of running bibs and T-shirts that prove I’ve run dozens of races (5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons and a couple of full marathons, including the Walt Disney World Dopey Challenge 2015) and hundreds of miles—and that doesn’t count the training runs.

The beginning of my running journey started when I saw something someone else had done and I wanted that for myself. It started with a friend attending a local boot camp, experiencing some healthy outcomes, and I wanted that too. Little did I know a lifelong love of running would result. But, I had to take the first step into the facility where the boot camp was held.

That particular journey was a conscious decision. Sometimes, however, our journeys are thrust upon us without warning and against our will. We are then faced with how we respond and which direction we go rather than whether we are going to go. Oh yes, we’re going. No question. But we have to decide whether we’re going kicking and screaming, or whether we’re going peacefully. Or we have to decide whether we’re going triumphantly or in defeat. Such was the case with my journey to become a therapist and now to subsequently launch my private practice.

journey of 1000 miles

Life threw our family a curve ball around 2005 that landed us in family therapy. Family therapy was the last thing I had ever imagined for myself and my family, and not what I wanted to be doing at that time. Turns out the circumstances that forced that outcome were the single step that has led me to where I am right now. If we had never sat face to face with an amazing therapist who challenged me to figure out my purpose in life my journey over the last decade would be measurably different.

Adversity can bring out either the worst or the best in people. We were able to take an adverse circumstance and capitalize on it to bring about family change and I was able to realize personal change. In addition, I came to realize my life’s calling to help others navigate the troubled waters of their lives.

I can now look back and also see where other seemingly random circumstances have come together to shape my current practice and expertise. In the years leading up to the above-mentioned family crisis I did medical transcription from home. I then went to work as a medical receptionist as I began my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. My therapy internship was within a family medicine residency clinic and my subsequent post-graduate jobs were working within that same clinic system. I’ve gone on to develop an expertise and become a trainer in a therapeutic model (Motivational Interviewing) now regularly being taught to medical students that focuses on helping patients navigate change in their health behaviors. I’ve trained dozens of physicians, nurses, and other healthcare practitioners, as well as other human service and mental health practitioners in the same model.

All the while I was walking my journey as a mental health practitioner I couldn’t escape the medical field. But, I believe there was a reason for that. My master’s program was one of only two marriage and family therapy programs at the time housed within a school of medicine and we were taught the biopsychosocial model of medicine and therapy. “Biopsychosocial” is a big word. What does it mean? Basically it means that as humans our entire well-being is a function of not only our physical health, but also of our mental/emotional health, and our social support system. In addition, the spiritual aspect of life is now also being incorporated into this model.

So what does that mean for my practice and my clients? It means that I am trained to think systemically about health and all the factors that contribute to well-being. It also means that having worked with dozens of physicians over the past several years—some very well known nationally and internationally for their specializations—I have a depth of knowledge about health conditions that the average therapist might not have. I know how to speak the language and/or I have medical colleagues that can help sort out the specifics.

The discovery of a new or chronic health diagnosis is a circumstance many people find themselves faced with rather unexpectedly. They are thrust into a health journey about which they are totally clueless and that brings about much stress and worry. It can lead to depression or anxiety. It can lead to grief over loss of quality of life. It can cause relationship issues as persons and their families learn to navigate all the new requirements associated with the diagnosis such as increased costs of medicines and treatments, transportation to appointments, loss of work, etc. People find themselves unsure of their options. They’re confused about what their diagnosis means. They fear the unknown. Where do they turn for support and understanding?

My life’s journey has prepared me to be someone who can help others navigate new health crises and the ongoing management of systemic issues related to chronic disease management. I not only have a healthcare background that has paved the way of understanding of medical jargon and how the medical field works, but as I mentioned previously I have also experienced a major life detour requiring a complete rethinking of how to move forward. I understand unwanted but forced change. And, the therapeutic model I alluded to above is a collaborative, compassionate, and empathic model for determining what is best for the individual facing the crisis. It is not about me telling others what they should or should not be doing. It is about walking through the journey together to figure out what is best for my clients and their family based on their overall goals, desires, and wishes.

And, as an added bonus, I take therapy outside of a sterile, clinical, office environment to nearby nature for the added therapeutic benefit of fresh air and exercise. Are you or someone you know facing a health crisis or struggling with managing a chronic disease? Could you use a little extra support in this part of your journey? Call or email me to schedule a walk-and-talk session: 404-895-1525 or Denice@WalkAndTalkAtlanta.com.

I am also a Distance Credentialed Counselor and offer online therapy appointments for those who are located within the state of Georgia.

Through rose-colored glasses

“Wasn’t it weird and stressful to stand up in front of a bunch of people and tell each other how much you meant to each other?” our daughter asked last night over dinner referring to our wedding ceremony. Thus ensued a discussion about that particular day in our lives.

I recounted how angry I was walking down the aisle. Yes, you read that right. I was angry. Not “Bridezilla” angry, but mad nonetheless. Why? We had hired a videographer and as my daddy was walking me down the aisle I did not see a video camera anywhere in sight! This was well before cell phones and small video cameras. Video cameras were huge back in the day and I was wondering, “Where the hell is the video camera?!?” It wasn’t until we stepped up onto the platform at the front of the church that I finally saw the videographer crouched down below the choir banister trying to be clandestine and not show up in the broader still shots being taken from the back of the sanctuary. Great, but you completely missed shooting me walking down the aisle with my daddy! If you look very closely at the attached photo in the bottom right hand corner you can see the top of the videographer’s head peeking over the choir loft rail.

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I went on to describe some other minor disasters that occurred that day. For instance, the pianist we had hired had a death in the family and couldn’t make it. The organist also played piano and we asked him to get up and walk around to the other side of the sanctuary to accompany my now sister-in-law on the piano on the piece we had asked her to sing. He refused and thus he accompanied her on organ. It was not the best choice of accompanying instrument. His sister sang beautifully, by the way, despite the horrible accompaniment.

The organist did agree to play piano at our reception and turns out he was quite the accomplished jazz pianist; however, neither my husband nor I ever got to hear him play because we waited until the conclusion of the ceremony to take pictures due to the belief “it’s bad luck to see each other before the ceremony.” By the time we all made it down to the reception the hour or so we had paid for reception music was over and the not-so-great organist but exceptional jazz pianist was long gone.

Add to this some other stressors including a torrential downpour that flooded the church at the conclusion of the reception, the caterer refusing to make (or even serve) my husband’s favorite carrot cake as his groom’s cake because “it would crumble and make a mess”, and my husband leaving his suitcase in the trunk of his parents’ car as we headed to our hotel for the night and his parents headed two hours in the opposite direction home. By the way, he sure was handsome the next morning still dressed in his tux while I was in my slouchy jeans and sweatshirt.

After describing all the things that went wrong that day our daughter asked, “So it wasn’t one of the best days of your life.” Au contraire. I got to marry the love of my life and we were surrounded by so much love from family and friends. And that day was so very memorable for a variety reasons, some of which are the above stories we get to continue to tell.

That led to a discussion of some of the best days of our lives. The birth of each of our daughters tops the list. My husband standing in Red Square in front of Lennin’s tomb with the Band of the Air Force Reserve playing Stars and Stripes Forever was another. Interestingly enough, none of those days were perfect. In fact, many of those days we count as some of the best days of our lives were incredibly stressful—which is what this post boils down to. How do you frame the narrative of your life and your memories? Can you reframe the tragedies and stresses into the foundation of something good? What is the lens through which you view your life and relationships? Can you let go of the negative and embrace the positive?

This is one of the things therapists/counselors seek to help others do: examine how our past circumstances & relationships served to shape current thoughts, behaviors, narratives & patterns of relating.

Why was I angry on my wedding day? Because I like order and to be in control of my circumstances. From where did this need to be in control stem? From some childhood experiences of feeling out of control, such as my parents’ divorce.

On my wedding day there were things that were well beyond my control once the wedding march began on the organ. I could have viewed that day through a lens of “that was a disaster and an omen of all things to come in our marriage.” And yet, 28 years later we’re still going strong.

Why revisit the past? Why not just create a new life moving forward? Why not just focus on the here and now? Because we are shaped by our pasts. The complex overlap of all our life experiences serve as the filter through which we view our present and future, and determine how we think and act moving forward. Granted, there isn’t anything we can do to change the past, but by examining the past we can come to a point of greater self-awareness that serves to explain our thought processes which can then, in turn, help us overcome any negative/detrimental patterns and move forward.

At times I still get upset when things don’t go my way despite my best efforts to plan. I understand now where the sense of panic and need to be the master of my domain is rooted. I could be paralyzed with fear and frustration if I had not come to understand some of my neuroses; however, now I am able to capture the thoughts, be mindful of the here and now, and remind myself that not being in control is not the worst thing that could happen. In fact, I now know some wonderful memories stand to be made in the midst of the chaos and just living for the moment.

And yes, I had a therapist or two to walk me through some of this journey of self-discovery and that is how I approach therapy—as a partnership in the journey of life to develop a greater understanding of self for the purpose of breaking maladaptive patterns of thoughts and behavior in order to live one’s best life moving forward.

Would you or someone you know be interested in developing such a partnership? Come join me for a walk-and-talk session in the park. I can be reached at 404-895-1525 or by email at Denice@WalkAndTalkAtlanta.com.

Lost? Stuck? What now?

Ever been driving or walking somewhere and got turned around or lost? What did you do? Did you continue driving or walking around for a bit thinking you could find your way only to realize you were now REALLY lost? What then?

whatnow

These days many of us have GPS-enabled smart phones that point us in the right direction; however, even these maps fail at times. For instance, during one particular family vacation several years ago we hit a detour not included in our driving instructions. This was before our phones were smart enough to reroute us. More recently, however, I have been driving to a location (or two or three) only to find out the map app was ever so slightly off and the destination was a mile or two in another direction entirely! What do you do then? Stop and ask for directions? Keep driving? Turn around and go back home?

Sometimes while on our life journey we might hit a roadblock, or detour or two. We might think we’re headed in the right direction and have almost achieved our goals only to realize the destination to which we thought we would arrive shortly has since relocated and although we’re closer to our goal we still have quite some way to go. Or what happens when our phone battery dies and we forgot our charger? During these times we might need a little extra help in the form of guidance from someone familiar with the area, or perhaps someone to bring along a gas can and refill our tank (or a loaner phone cord) so we can push on through the extra miles we’ve now discovered we still have to cover.

I have been describing various metaphors for life and therapy and this is no different. Sometimes in life we get lost and/or just plain stuck. We lose our way and we need some extra help to get back on track. This extra support and direction may come from any number of sources including a counselor or therapist. Counselors and therapists are trained to help people look at their life circumstances from a different perspective and to help people get back on track, find a different way to achieve a goal, or choose a different destination altogether.

A good therapist serves as a guide working with you to achieve your personal goals in a way best suited to you and your needs. Some people need more specific direction than others. For some, “hey–you’re going in the wrong direction,” is all the correction they need. Some people get way off track and need a lead car or someone to ride alongside them until they have reached their destination safely.

Are you (or someone you know) currently lost, stuck, or struggling to find your way? I would be happy to walk alongside you and help you figure out where you would like to go and the best way to get there. Give me a call at 404-895-1525 or email me at Denice@WalkAndTalkAtlanta.com. Let’s get you where you want to be!