When bad things happen to good people

Words cannot express the sorrow I feel for the victims and families of the Sandy Hook shooting.  As a mental health professional I have experienced the reaction to the tragedy  through clients, colleges and friends of the victims. Personally, I have had to help my own children deal with the news and the resulting anxiety. We have also felt the pain of the loss of one of the little girls, Jess a sweet 6 year old who we saw just last weekend at the barn where we ride. Although I have no answer to why something could happen to such innocent children, I do have some suggestions based on my personal and professional experience that might help you cope. I hope they help bring you some comfort.

  1. Shut off the T.V, radio, and hide the newspapers.  As adults we may be able to handle watching the news and reading about the shooting. Our children can only become fearful and anxious. My 9 year old was at one of the barns we ride at yesterday and the radio had  the news reports on. She screamed “can someone shut that off! I am tired of hearing about it!” I was so proud of her for taking care of herself and not worrying about what others would think about her. My other daughter who is 14 wanted to sit and listen to the radio report in the car. I let her listen to a little and then shut it off. She insisted she could handle the news. I didn’t want to take the chance. As the parent I need to decide what is appropriate and not. Also, be careful when talking to your partner or adult friends about the incident.  Children are naturally curious and will eavesdrop on your conversations. They may also listen through closed doors.
  2. Put the shooting in perspective. For some children, the vividness of a sensational news story can be internalized and transformed into something that might happen to them. With this tragedy happening so close to home, a child watching a news story about the shooting might worry, “Could I be next? Could that happen to me?” TV has the effect of shrinking the world and bringing it into our living rooms. By putting the shooting in perspective by talking about how many millions of children go to school each day, each year safely. These incidents are rare.
  3. Now is the time to really step up family time. Kiss spontaneously. Take the snuggle cure. Keep your structure and routines as normal as possible. If you feel yourself losing control, remind yourself of what is most important in your life. Know also when you need some TLC or professional help. If you are feeling overwhelmed don’t isolate. Reach out to friends or family members that can help you and your family through this difficult time.
  4. Find time to talk: Let your child’s questions determine how much information to give. Some children may not just start conversations with you. They may just hang around you more looking for you to ask them how they are doing. Look for these non-verbal clues. Also, remember to talk on their level. Elementary school children need brief, simple explanations that should be balanced with reassurances that their school and homes are safe and we as adults are there to protect them. Encourage them to express their feelings through talking, drawing or playing. Upper elementary and early middle school children will be more vocal in asking questions about whether they are truly safe. Discuss the efforts the school and community are doing to provide safe schools. Upper middle school and high school students will have varying opinions about the cause of the shooting. They will want more information, but only you as their parent can decide how much you want to give them right away. This age group can be empowered to look after their own safety by not letting strangers into the school or reporting unusual situations.
  1. Seek help when necessary. If you are worried about a child’s reaction, have ongoing concerns about their behavior or emotions, contact a mental health professional at school or ask for a referral.  This holds true for yourself. Be aware of any changes in your own behavior in terms of isolating, eating, sleeping, crying, bouts of anger, lack of joy in activities, or increase consumption of alcoholic beverages. Don’t hesitate to get help early on. You may need just a few sessions to get back on track.

 As always, I am here to help you and your family in any way I can.

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Holiday Stress – 5 top ideas to help you survive

Well, it is that time of year again…the holidays are upon us and this means increased stress levels for both parents and children. Whether it is hosting a holiday party, dealing with family conflict, or the added financial strain, holidays challenge our ability to stay calm.

Here are my top 5 suggestions to help you get through the holidays with some form of sanity!

1.  Change your thoughts: This ties into my last post where I discussed how our thinking errors cause us to worry more about things than we really need to. Check your thoughts and see if they are realistic, accurate, and reasonable. In addition, ask yourself if your thoughts are based in reality, help you feel the way you want to feel and help you reach your goals. The most common thinking error I see in my practice is “all or nothing” thinking. Around the holidays it might sound like “I have to get all the presents on my kids list or it will be a horrible holiday.”  It most likely won’t be the “best ever” but it won’t be the “worst ever” either.

2.  Expectations: Try to take a step back and consider your expectations for yourself, children, partner, and holiday.  If you are expecting perfection in any of these areas, you are setting yourself up to be very disappointed. Further, the economy has impacted everyone to one degree or another. If age appropriate let your children know if gift giving will be less than previous years. It is much better to set their expectations now than listen to complaints at holiday time. You also don’t want to find yourself saddled with a lot of debt in the new year.

3. Plan: Work with your partner and establish a budget for holiday gift giving and special occasions. Also, think ahead and try to do as much in advance as you can. What have you learned about yourself from previous years? What worked and what didn’t?

4. Be in the present: If you focus too much on what might happen, you will miss the joy in the moment. I have a saying “keep your head where your feet are.”  It helps me and others to not get too far ahead of ourselves.

5. Take care of yourself: As the demands for our time increase this time of year, it is very easy to give up on our exercise routine, reading, meditation and eating healthy. All of these things are important to our physical and emotional well-being.  If we neglect them we won’t feel good about ourselves and may not respond to others the way we would like to.

How do you manage your holiday stress? I would love to hear from you!

Thinking Traps

In my last post I mentioned that the 9 year old girl I was working with had some thinking errors (traps) around what she thought others would think of her hair if it had a bump in it. So what did I mean by that? Well, we all have these kind of automatic thoughts that come into our head all day long. Some of them are helpful like “Yes! I did a great job on that project! I am the best!” However, many people have a lot of the not so helpful ones such as “I am so stupid! How could I have missed that question! I am just not good at anything!”  Knowing what our thinking errors/traps are, is important because they impact how we feel and behave.  Thinking errors can be categorized by the following:

1.  Negative glasses: We can only see one part of what happens – the negative part! If you have a good time, the negative glasses will still find the things that went wrong and let you only see them. We cannot see the possible good things that could happen in a situation.

2. All or nothing thinking: Everything is seen in all or nothing terms. There is nothing in between; No shades of gray or scale of relative risk. This kind of thinking sounds like “I will NEVER …”, “I ALWAYS…”

3. Snowballing (Catastrophizing) : A single event or disappointment snowballs and quickly grows into an never-ending pattern of defeat. You always think the worst thing is going to happen.

4. Fortune teller: You tend to predict the future outcome which leads to anxiety. This frequently sounds like “what if…” This tends to lead to more worry, especially since we usually do not predict positive outcomes.

5. Perfectionist: Setting expectations for yourself that are too high and are nearly impossible to reach. This usually involves all or nothing thinking too. If there is one little mistake the whole thing isn’t good.

The first step in changing these automatic thoughts is to notice them and write them down. You can then look for patterns and things that trigger them. In my next post I will discuss this in more detail.

Also, I actually have a handout of 17 of these thinking errors! If you would like a copy, just email me and I will be happy to mail one to you.

More on habituation

Over the past few weeks, I have watched in awe how clients have used their bodies natural ability (habituation) to get use to novel situations that had been causing them so much anxiety. In one case, a 9 year old girl had been having meltdowns each morning because her pony tail had a “bump” in it. This may sound trivial, but for this child it felt so uncomfortable that she wanted to pull her hair out. Each morning the entire family dreaded the moment when their daughter would do her hair. We talked about what she was thinking when her hair wasn’t “just right.” She thought she would be made fun of and would get very embarrassed. We worked together to come up with other thoughts she could have that would make her feel better. She and her mom then went to the library and found a great book on hair styles. Over the long weekend they played with her hair and put it in many beautiful and crazy styles. By the time school came around, the child had gotten use to (habituated) her hair and scalp feeling different. The girl put her hair up and went right on the bus! No meltdowns! It isn’t always so easy though. Many times the exposure (trying new hair styles) has to be done much more gradually and over a long period of time. However, I have seen this process perform miracles for children and adults.

The Magic of Habituation

Habituation is the natural process our bodies are equipped with that allows us to cope with new situations. You probably have experienced habituation, but may not have had a name to give it. When we jump into a pool of water it takes a few minutes for our bodies to feel comfortable as it is habituating to the temperature.  This is the same process used when our eyes adjust  going from a bright room to a dark room.  In addition to water temperature and light, our bodies automatically habituate to different levels of anxiety.

I recently experienced the benefits of habituation. This summer I began participating in dressage horse shows on my horse, Sonic.  As I prepared for my first show of the season I made sure I knew the movements or “tests.”  I tried visualizing each test in my head and used the different relaxation techniques I suggest my clients use when they are preparing for an anxiety provoking situation.  As I practiced in the warm up ring my heart started pounding and my breathing got fast.  I tried controlled breathing, relaxation, positive self talk and distraction to deal with my anxiety.  All of these techniques helped me calm me down a little, but when it was my turn in the show ring I was still wound too tight. Needless to say I didn’t place well.  A few weeks later, I was in the show ring again.  I used the same techniques, but because I had showed recently I was much calmer and performed a lot better.  I had habituated to showing. This is the magic of habituation.  The more you do something, the easier it gets!.

A few important facts about anxiety and habituation:

1. Anxiety is transient and passes.

2. Avoidance strengthens anxiety. If I had avoided showing for a few months the next time I showed my anxiety would most likely have been higher. My avoidance would have made my anxiety worse.

3. Exposure weakens anxiety. By showing again, my anxiety was less than the time before.

4. Habituation is natural and automatic.

5.Exposure is necessary for habituation. The more you experience something, the easier it gets.

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This entry was posted on August 31, 2012. 6 Comments

What is the most common disorder found in childhood?

Many people I work with and know are shocked to find out that the highest prevalence of virtually all mental disorders found in childhood and adolescence are anxiety disorders!   The National Institute of Mental Health states that 25.7% of children 8 years old suffer from an anxiety disorder.  How can you help your child? The next time your child is feeling scared help them play “detective” and catch the worried thought that is feeding their fear. Continue playing “detective” by looking for evidence to determine if what they are afraid of will really happen. Some questions you can help your child answer are: What has happened before in this situation? Did anything bad happen? Does something bad happen every time you are in the situation? What else could happen in this situation?

By the way, this strategy also works for all of us adults too!

This entry was posted on August 11, 2012. 2 Comments

Three questions to ask yourself

Anxiety is a result of our judgment of the risk or danger inherent in the situation.  This is why anxiety doesn’t  always make sense.  Flying on a plane can be enjoyable to one person and terrifying to another.

Three questions I suggest you ask yourself when you are feeling overwhelmed and anxious are:

1. Is my thought or worry based in reality?

2. Does my thought help me achieve my goals?

3. Does my thought help me feel the way I want to feel?

If you answer “no” to any of the questions, it is time to throw away that thought or belief.

Let me know how this works for you!