Lent Intersecting Therapy

Lent is usually a season of giving up oppressive habits and taking on new patterns of living. We often think of Lent in terms of giving up chocolates or coffee for a time, but when we think of Lent in the broader sense of observing and breaking the chains that lead us on a negative path, we can see how it plays into our mental health.

This year, I’m going to stop drinking coffee because I’ve noticed I get irritable and am prone to withdrawal headaches if I don’t get my morning cup. Coffee is a good thing, but it’s become a weight on my life- I have to have it, I’ve grown dependent on it.

Similarly, I’ve noticed a pattern of thinking that’s unhelpful. When I’m worried or have a concern, I’ve fallen back into ruminating on all the possibilities. This makes me feel tense, and I can feel it all through my body. And when I start to feel the anxious tension in my body, the mental distress escalates which again turns back to mental chatter. It’s a vicious cycle and I don’t like it at all. So this year, I’m also giving up anxious thinking.

Breaking a thought pattern is very different from breaking a physical habit. I can stop drinking coffee by simply not picking it up or ordering it. But thoughts are often unconscious, and there’s not an option to simply not think at all or to filter your thoughts to block out the ones you’re trying to avoid. Wouldn’t that be nice?

In the Christian tradition, we’re told to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor 10:5) and “think on things that are true, noble, pure, right, admirable, and lovely” (Phil 4:8-9). These suggest two key points: first that thoughts happen unconsciously, and when they do, we have a choice about that to do with them when we notice them. Second, that we can consciously direct our thoughts, and we are not entirely at the whim of our unconscious minds.

Taking unconscious thoughts captive starts with awareness. We can’t capture a thought that we don’t know is even happening. And awareness starts with slowing down and paying attention. Most of our life happens on autopilot. And most of the time that’s okay. You don’t need to pay close attention to every detail of your commute, and it’s normal to want to zone out a bit after a busy day. But sometimes autopilot goes wrong, and our default thoughts turn toward the negative.

That’s what happened to me- I consciously managed my anxiety years ago and haven’t been super prone to anxious thoughts for a while. But lately, it’s crept up again, and it’s important to deal with it early so it doesn’t get out of hand. My autopilot has turned to worry, and that’s not okay with me.

You may be surprised to hear this from a therapist, but I’m not the best at noticing my emotions. It’s something I’m working to get better at through this conscious practice of noticing and increasing my awareness. I usually notice my anxiety when my neck and shoulders start feeling tense and I notice the shift in my breathing. Once I notice these physical shifts, I can usually trace them back to the frantic thoughts. Taking time throughout the day to check in with my thoughts, emotions, and body feelings is so helpful in allowing me a chance to notice in advance what’s going on in my mind before it starts affecting my body.

But what to do with anxious thoughts once you notice them? They feel like they’re racing so fast, they almost have a life and power of their own. I think it’s enough to simply say no to the thoughts. No, I’m not doing this right now. No, this isn’t helpful. No, you’re just going in circles and getting nowhere. No, no, no. Some theories say that it’s helpful to debate the thoughts or analyze them to see if they’re true. And if that works for you, go for it! But that doesn’t work for me.

I’ve mentioned before about how a tree branch fell on my car in a windstorm and I would get super anxious when it got windy with the thought that another branch could fall again. It wasn’t helpful to challenge those thoughts because my anxious mind doesn’t care that a branch fell only once in the ten years I’ve lived here- it happened once and could happen again. The only thing that truly helped was saying no from a place of acceptance. Yes, the tree could blow around so hard that another branch falls on the car or the house or a person. But my worry thoughts can’t stop it. If I stay up awake at night worried about what the tree might do, that won’t keep it from falling if it’s going to.

This brings us to the second part. You may have heard the saying “Life abhors a vacuum.” This is equally true of our thoughts. It’s not enough to simply say no to the anxious thoughts, we have to replace them with something else or another thought will quickly come up from our unconscious minds.

Whatever is true, whatever is right…
The “what-if” thoughts aren’t true. They’re hypothetical. They’re future focused. The best way to think of what is true and right is to turn your attention to the present. Give direct, focused, mindful awareness to who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing.

Whatever is pure, whatever is noble…
The “worst case scenario” thoughts aren’t pure. Pure means “without unnecessary elements” or “without contamination.” Worry adds to your reality with all the ways things could go wrong. And again, the antidote is present focus, getting back to what is currently happening without the added extras that the anxious thoughts are focused on.

Whatever is admirable, whatever is lovely…
Anxious thoughts often take us to the lowest place. Thinking of things that are admirable or lovely helps to lift us back up. When we set our minds on higher things, we are reminded of the good things in this world. Lately, I’ve seen articles of studies that show how good it is for people to experience things like awe, wonder, beauty, and glory. Whether it’s going out in nature, experiencing art, or simply marveling at the majesty of the world, focusing outside ourselves helps us get out of our minds and back into a proper perspective of who we are and how we fit into the world.

As we approach the beginning of Lent, I hope you consider how Lenten practices can intersect your personal work in your thoughts and habits. If you have a similar experience or want to join me on this journey, leave a comment and share your perspective!

Grieving Body Changes

Whether from aging, medical treatment, or an accident, our bodies change. Like other forms of grief, the story we tell ourselves about how and why these changes happened is the source of our peace or distress.

Body changes are often our most public changes. When we start a new habit or learn a new language, others can’t tell just by looking. But the people around us take notice when chemotherapy leads to hair loss, an accident takes an arm, or aging makes us need glasses at work.

Medical treatments can cause some of the most extreme body changes. Treatments may cause us to gain or lose a significant amount of weight, we may lose a limb or an eye, we may lose our reproductive capability. Even when these treatments were medically necessary and we understand logically that this was the best path, we still grieve these losses.

Aging-related changes can be difficult to accept, particularly in cultures that value youth and appearance over age and wisdom. Even though we all know that we will age every year, some people fight hard against the reality of growing older.

Accidents are the most likely to result in complicated grief for the simple reason that they are not something we might choose (like medical treatment) or reasonably foresee (like aging). And accidents often have someone to blame, whether that’s yourself or someone else.

Blaming narratives lead us down a path of grief that is likely to keep us stuck in a vicious cycle of negativity. Blame helps us hold onto anger at the person or situation that caused our grief and keeps us away from taking productive action toward the present and future.

Grief that keeps us stuck in the past can be resolved through work around changing your story of what happened and why. Even when someone is clearly at fault, your narrative needs to incorporate the facts in a way that acknowledges what happened while still allowing you to accept your present reality so that you can continue to create your life moving forward. We need to balance our natural desire to know the reason for our suffering with the fact that there are some things we need to accept that we will never fully know.

As you notice the changes in your body, try to also notice the thoughts you have surrounding the changes. Notice if you are worried what others might think, if you are missing your ability to do a particular activity, or if you tend to blame someone in particular for your loss. This noticing allows you to begin to be aware of the narrative your mind has already created about the situation. These narratives are instinctively formed from your past experiences and your emotions. Notice with compassion and non-judgment, but also notice where your automatic narrative might be creating additional problems for you.

Once you’re aware of your narrative, you can work to shift it in a way that leads you to peace and mental freedom. Your reality is the same, but your thoughts and perspective can move from a focus on the past and what you lost toward acceptance of your current situation and a hopeful future.

Understanding Loss is Losing Trust in the World

We all have automatic assumptions about the way life works, how things should be. In general, we tend to see the world as generally fair. If you work hard, good things will happen. If you are kind to people, people will be kind to you. Mean people will get what’s coming to them. 

So when something big happens, and it feels fundamentally unfair, we start to question our automatic assumptions about how life works. We as humans like having a connected story about how and why things happen around us. We like stories that make sense and connect the dots. So when a lifelong addict dies of an overdose, we feel sadness and empathy but the story generally fits. And when someone dies of old age after a full life surrounded by family, we may miss them but we see death as a natural conclusion. 

But it’s more difficult to wrap our minds around the story when a child dies, or an otherwise healthy person gets a cancer diagnosis, or a spouse decides to leave a relationship that felt like it was going well. We have to confront the reality that there is no factual basis for our assumption that life will be good or fair or fit our stories of how things should go. 

How do we make sense of the world when we realize the fundamental unfairness? What kind of story can we tell ourselves about life when something truly awful happens? Can we find meaning and purpose in a world where children die, good people lose everything, and kind people get cancer? The fact is, we will have to find a way to understand the awful, unfair things that happen in life so that we can keep going and not lose our way. 

The two extremes here are either to bury our heads in the sand and insist that things will work out despite all evidence to the contrary, or to maintain a stark awareness of how unfair life is and stay in a state of despair that we will ever be able to progress in the face of deep injustice. Of course, we want to find a middle way. We need to know that life is not fair, that goodness does not protect us from bad things. But we also need to know that there is hope, that our choices toward goodness still count for something, that it’s worth trying and striving in the face of an unfair world. 

As someone going through loss, you will naturally find yourself wanting to construct a story of grief. Your mind wants to understand what happened and why. Sometimes, these answers are given to us- if you have a genetic predisposition to Huntington’s Disease, it doesn’t matter how healthy or unhealthy your lifestyle is. It doesn’t matter if you volunteer with at-risk children or give generously to charities, you have a certain likelihood of inheriting the disease based on your parents’ disease status. Sometimes, the answers don’t come easily- why children get bone cancer, why the car crash happened at that moment, who is at fault for a workplace accident. 

Walking the middle path means retelling these stories in a way that accounts for the fundamental unfairness of life. Yes, your disease might be genetic, but it was a chance that you were born to those particular parents. Yes, sometimes children get cancer and other serious illnesses, and sometimes they die after only a short life. Our story of how life works has to be able to make sense of these things without assigning blame or coming up with a secret agenda working against us. We have to learn how to see tragedy as something that happens to good and bad people alike without them deserving it. 

Couples in Conflict

Do you feel like you and your partner fight a lot? Not at all? Check out this definition of healthy conflict and see how you measure up.

Many couples wonder if they’re fighting too much or not enough. There are many pop psychology articles that make wild claims about fighting- you need to fight to be healthy, you should never fight before bed, fighting in front of kids is bad for them.

But most of that is not true, or at least not validated by science.

According to research by the Gottman Institute, 69% of conflict is not going to be resolved. Many conflicts are created by personality differences that don’t go away.

So how often you fight isn’t the most important thing. What matters is how you deal with conflict and how your conflict affects the relationship.

What does fighting mean for you and your partner? Your family of origin and the way they handled conflict informs what you think of about what it means to fight. Many couples who say they don’t fight really mean that they never yell- so for them, yelling defines a “fight” versus a “disagreement.” Take a moment to think about how you and your partner were taught about conflict in your family of origin and how you have followed or deliberately chosen not to continue those patterns.

If conflict is inevitable in relationship, couple’s therapy doesn’t mean helping you fight less. Instead, therapy helps you unpack your generational patterns of conflict and teach you ways to intentionally have conflict well.

What is a good conflict? Healthy conflict respects each person’s opinion and hears their values. At the end of the fight, your relationship is still strong. In the end, you’re still friends. You can hear and honor the other person’s stance even when you disagree. You are able to speak calmly about the conflict, not getting heated, accusatory, or shutting down. If you find yourself not able to keep calm, you can ask for a break and your partner respects your request.

Does this sound like the way you and your partner fight? If not, couple’s therapy can help you learn new skills to handle conflict well in order to maintain your relationship and allow each of you to thrive.

What is ACT?

Curious about ACT? Check out this overview to see if it’s right for you.

ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT is a kind of cognitive therapy that works to help you live your desired life by identifying your values and aligning what you do to make sure your values come out in how you live.

ACT is best explained through a metaphor. One of my favorites is the metaphor of the backseat drivers. Imagine you’re driving a car toward the life you want to live. But fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, and all their friends are piled in your back seat talking over you and pointing you down different roads.

You can pull over, stop the car, and work on trying to get the backseat drivers out of your car. But it takes a lot of effort to get rid of them, and while you’re doing that you’re not moving forward in your life. And when you get back on the road, those backseat drivers will eventually find their way into your car again.

ACT believes that the most effective way to get to your desired life is to keep driving. Focusing on the backseat drivers only leads to a crash. And stopping to get them out of your car is a lot of effort for not much payoff. It might be difficult to learn how to tune them out, but the important part is that you keep going where you want to go, not derailing your dreams because of anxiety, not taking a different path because your low self-esteem says you don’t deserve to get what you want.

This takes effort. The first part of ACT is based in mindfulness. You need to know how to tell the difference between your unhelpful backseat driver thoughts and your core self and its desires.

Once you can separate your unhelpful thoughts, you’ll learn skills to simply observe your thoughts as they come up rather than reacting to them. Observing in the present moment is a key skill.

Then we’ll start looking at your values. Everyone has different values, but because they’re such a core part of who we are, it can be hard to recognize them and put them into words.

Finally, your values will turn into committed action. You’re probably already living out your values in some areas of your life, but we’ll look at where you need help reshaping your life. We’ll identify specific action steps for you to take to transform your life to align with your values so every day feels purposeful and meaningful.

ACT helps anyone who feels like their thoughts and emotions are out of control backseat drivers who are derailing you from living the life you want. It works well for both individuals and couples. ACT has special workbooks for anxiety, depression, couples’ issues, and even chronic pain. But like most cognitive therapies, it can be helpful even if you don’t identify with any of those categories.

If you’re interested in ACT or in learning more, text, call, or email me for a free consultation.

Life Rhythms

A rule of life helps keep you in tune with the natural rhythms of the world. Therapy can help you find the balance and live into your values.

Traditionally, creating a Rule of Life has been a key component of spiritual growth and direction. These rhythms are not only helpful for spiritual growth, they are also a good foundation for your mental and relational health.

Rhythms involve opposites. These patterns of life include solitude and companionship, rest and work, knowledge and experience, prayer and service, action and meditation. Notice that these go back and forth between active effort and passive refreshment.

Life involves ups and downs. The idea of rhythm is natural and normal. Many people struggle to accept both sides of life, particularly the low points. Creating a life rhythm gets you back in tune with the natural rhythms of the world.

I hear from many people that they wish things could always be good, that they could always be happy, and that they could be more outgoing and positive. But this isn’t realistic and sets you up for disappointment.

It takes effort to get in tune with yourself to see what you need. You will have times of expansion where you do feel social, active, and capable. There will also be times when you feel a need for rest, for stepping back, and for quiet solitude.

Notice this solitude is different from the isolation that often comes alongside depression. This is where discernment is important. If you feel like your desire to be alone comes from depression, your true need is social activity. Soul-refreshing solitude balances times of activity when you give from your strengths.

If you feel like your life is out of balance or if you feel pressured to keep up action and positivity without rest, go back and read the list above. Notice what words you are drawn to. Use your discernment to see what you truly need.

I can help you discern your values and find balance between action and rest. Through therapy, we can look at your patterns of life and examine how it is affecting you, your relationships, and your spiritual life. Then we can gently restructure your schedule to allow you to return to the natural rhythms of life.

Couples Counseling for One

Couple’s therapy can still be effective even if your partner doesn’t want to work with you to change the relationship. Individual therapy with a couple’s focus is possible and effective.

You may know there’s a problem in your relationship, but your partner isn’t willing to go to therapy with you. Does this sound familiar? If it does, there is hope.

Most people think of couple’s therapy as sessions with all partners in the session where they learn and practice skills to improve the relationship. While this may be an ideal for couples to transform their relationships, it’s certainly not uncommon for only one person in the relationship to want to go to therapy and put in the work for change.

Being an individual doing couple’s work can feel awkward or strange. You’ll learn communication skills that your partner isn’t learning along with you. When you go to practice your new skills, they may respond in a way you didn’t want. It can feel devitalizing and demoralizing.

But even if both of you attend couple’s sessions, these scenarios may still happen. Skills you both learn and practice with the therapist may be difficult to bring into your home. This is a normal part of growth and change.

It only takes one person to change a system. As an individual, your work in therapy can transform your relationship even without your partner participating with you. It may take more work on your part, but it is not only possible, it is effective!

I use the Gottman method with couples, and it is also a valuable resource for individuals to learn to change their relationships. If you are feeling disconnected from your partner, wanting better communication, or looking to revitalize your relationship, you can!

Reach out today to start the process of building a solid foundation for your relationship to grow and flourish.

Teresa’s Prayer

Teresa of Avila wrote a prayer that helps me refocus my negative thoughts when I’m worried about change.

Lately, I have been meditating on this prayer written by Teresa of Avila. Meditating on prayers is one of my favorite ways to refocus my mind when I’m feeling anxious or stressed. I hope it helps you in the same way.

Let nothing disturb you, let nothing upset you

Everything changes, God alone is unchanging

With patience all things are possible

Whoever has God lacks nothing

God alone is enough

When everything seems to be changing around me and I feel worried, I think it’s helpful to remember that everything changes. Change can be very stressful, and there’s a tendency to think that change is the exception and if only things could settle down we could get back to normal. But this prayer reminds me that that’s not how life works.

In therapy, I often meet with people whose goal is to always be happy, have a relationship without any conflict, or find a perfect job. If your goal is to be happy or positive all the time, that’s unrealistic. There is no perfect relationship or job that will completely fulfill you or complete you. Having negative moods or a bad day at work fan derail you, but only if you let it.

Part of the goal of therapy is to build resilience. Given that change is constant and nothing will be perfect, how can you develop the mental skills to handle the ups and downs of life?

The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we perceive and react to the world. If your mental narrative tells you that you need to always be happy all the time in order to be okay, you’ll be consistently on the lookout for negative thoughts and emotions and it will ruin your day and your self-image. And a consistent focus on your negative thoughts can create a downward spiral that sucks you down into depression.

If this sounds familiar to you, consider meditating on this prayer to help break the negative thought cycle and get you back to a healthier narrative.

When things change, remember the times you overcame difficulty in the past, all the times change brought you a positive result, and how you made it through negative changes through your own strength and help from others.

Then ask yourself this question: What if everything works out well?

 

Therapy 101: How to Find a Therapist

In the Therapy 101 series, we’re covering the basics of what you should know before going to see a therapist. This post looks at finding a new therapist and the nine factors to consider when deciding to commit.

Finding a therapist can feel like online dating. It usually begins with a search- therapists near me, counselors near me, therapy for depression, best counseling group. You scroll through bright, happy websites full of professional photos of well-lit, smiling people. They all say pretty much the same thing. You’re stuck and I can help you. They have lots of buzzwords. Change. Transform. Holistic. Wellness. Some list a fee or insurance networks they accept. Many don’t. It can seem like there’s no real difference between them. But there is, and it’s not something you can see from a website. It’s their personality.

After all the effort you’ve put into finding a therapist, it’s tempting to pick the first one who calls you back. But it’s worth it to find someone who really gets you. Studies of the effectiveness of therapy show that it’s the relationship you have with your therapist that’s the biggest predictor of change in your life. It’s not the methods- results show that the therapy method doesn’t matter so much even though they seem so different.

Treat the first session like a date- it’ll probably be a bit awkward and you don’t really know each other but you’re trying to see if it’s a good fit and trying to make a positive first impression while being authentic about your experiences and struggles.

Many therapists offer a free initial consultation so you’re not dropping a hundred dollars on someone you don’t want to see again. But many don’t offer a free first session or do a free consultation on the phone only, so you may have to make a bit of an investment in finding the right person.

Here are nine signs you’ve found a good therapist:

*note: many of these signs reference California legal and ethical standards for therapists with a state license and may not apply in other states.

  1. They’re above board from the start. Your therapist should go over things like fees, cancellation policies, confidentiality, mandated reported requirements, and other boilerplate details with you. If they don’t mention any of these things, that’s a sign they’re uncomfortable talking about difficult topics, but it also indicates that they either don’t know the law or are purposely ignoring it. Not a good trait in a therapist.
  2. They can explain the process of therapy to you. Every therapist does therapy a bit differently, but the time you spend in therapy generally has a beginning, middle, and end. If the professional therapist can’t tell you what to expect in therapy, watch out! They might not know what they are doing or they might want to bring you in with no defined end so you’re in therapy for years (and paying every week!).
  3. They listen to you. After the required details are taken care of, the therapist should ask you why you’re coming to therapy. Depending on the therapist’s methods and the nature of your problems, they might ask about your childhood, your relationships, your sleep habits, or even your current thoughts and feelings. No matter how they direct the conversation, you should expect to spend a good amount of time talking about yourself and your experience. Stay away from the therapist who hears “I’m depressed” and doesn’t ask more- it shows they don’t really care about your side or how your personal history has shaped the current issue.
  4. You feel heard. Some therapists listen but you’re not quite sure they’ve really understood what you were saying. It’s a good sign when your therapist reflects back what they heard you say and asks if they’ve got it right. That shows they’re actually trying to get your perspective accurately and are willing to ask for clarification.
  5. They ask about your end goals. There are a few ways they might ask about this. Phrases like “if the problem was gone, what would be different” and “how would you like things to be with your spouse” are indicators that your therapist is looking for specific, measurable goals so they know when you’re heading for the end phase of therapy.
  6. You feel comfortable in the room. Therapy takes a while. You should be comfortable on the furniture, feel safe parking your car or taking transit to the office. This may seem like a small thing, but if you don’t feel like you can relax in the room, it’ll be easier for you to skip sessions later when it’s hard to get out the door.
  7. You like the look of your therapist. It can seem shallow to judge someone by their appearance, but it’s actually pretty important. If you feel attracted to them, you might not be completely honest about the weird parts of your past. If they seem too young, too old, or too close to your own age, you might not feel able to trust their judgment. Some people need to see an older therapist who reminds them of their grandparent. Couples may prefer to see a married therapist. Teens often like therapists who are either younger adults or older adults- not someone parent aged. A person who has experienced sexual assault may want to see someone completely different in race and gender from their attacker.
  8. The therapy style seems like a match. If you’re more analytical, look for a therapist who can explain your anxiety in a more technical way. If you’re a creative type, steer clear of the technical therapist and look for someone who will do process art, dance therapy, or music therapy with you. A good therapist can be both- they’ll mirror the way you talk and match their style to your personality and way of thinking.
  9. You’re comfortable with the fee. Most people aren’t comfortable talking about money, especially when it comes to admitting that something is too expensive. If you really feel like this is someone you could work well with, ask about sliding scale fees or suggest a fee you feel comfortable with as long as it’s similar to the current fee structure. It’s no fun for anyone to have a mass of unpaid bills collecting.

If they’ve got all these factors, you’ve found a match! Just remember, first sessions are often like first dates, and if you can afford it, give a maybe therapist a few sessions to get to know you before making a final decision. Of course, a red flag therapist shouldn’t get a second session- get out of there right away if you feel uncomfortable or if they’re clearly doing illegal or unethical things.

Christian Counseling: What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between Christian counseling and… regular counseling? Is there one? Can someone who isn’t Christian see a Christian therapist?

We’re going to try to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about Christian counseling in this post. Have a question that wasn’t covered here? Leave a comment or send us a message over on the contact page!

What do you have to do to become a Christian counselor?

Christian counseling does not have a regulated description, so a Christian counselor could be a counselor who is a Christian, or it could be a counselor with additional training in Bible and theology in addition to their therapy skills and training. I got my therapy degree from seminary because I believe that theological training is important. I wanted to have in-depth knowledge of Christian beliefs before I advertised myself as a Christian counselor.

Not all Christian counselors have this kind of training. In fact, many churches hire ‘counselors’ who are just kind, empathetic people with no counseling experience or even a degree in therapy. Practitioners in the state of California should have a MFT, PCC, or MSW designation to show they’ve completed a master’s level degree and have training in how to do therapy. Licensed professionals will have L in front of their credential- LMFT, LPCC, or LCSW. Both licensed and prelicensed therapists are capable of providing good therapy, but a prelicensed therapist will be working under the supervision of a licensed clinician.

What about people who aren’t Christian?

Every therapist is able to do appropriate therapy whether you’re Christian or not. We’ll ask you about your religious beliefs during the intake at your first session. If you indicate that you’re not Christian, we’ll use the best possible empirically proven methods to help you meet your mental health goals. If you say you are Christian, we’ll ask you if you want to integrate religious or theological discussion into your sessions using empirically proven methods. You can always change your mind later.

Your therapist should never evangelize to you in session or pressure you about your religious or spiritual beliefs. In fact, that’s against the law. You can file a consumer complaint to the Board of Behavioral Sciences if you think your therapist is doing something illegal or unethical in your sessions.