Zach Rawlings, MA, LPC

Licensed Professional Counselor

Why gay guys left their shirts in the closet: How the shirtless selfie is destroying gay men

I remember that day in first grade. He had called me “gay” on the playground and we had to have a meeting with our teacher about it. I don’t know how or why I knew that being called “gay” was bad, but I did. I felt the warm wash of shame come over me when we met with Mrs. Hudson. The meeting was a reminder that there was something wrong with me  —  something to be made fun of.

Read the full piece at The Huffington Post!

The religion debate: Is it helping or hindering our mental health?

Gun control, immigration reform, deportation, and terrorism are the hot topics candidates are rallying behind this election season in an attempt to bolster their poll numbers and gain public support. And why wouldn’t these topics be talked about? Just check out some of the most recent current happenings in the world:

In November, over one hundred people were killed in multiple mass shootings across the city of Paris. ISIS later took credit for that act of terrorism and claimed that anyone who worships any other God besides Allah must be punished severely.

Later that same month, a shooter made his way into a Planned Parenthood in Colorado and killed four people. His alleged reason was to “be a warrior for the babies.” Many have blamed Christian right-wingers who actively advocate the pro-life cause for creating an environment that caused this man to believe his actions were grounded in Christian faith.

And just one week later, sympathizers to the ISIS movement unleashed more gun violence at Inland Regional Center’s holiday party in San Bernadino. It’s assumed their attack was motivated by a desire to please Allah.

Such acts of terrorism have become regular speaking points by today’s politicians—usually to incite fear of some sort in citizens. Perhaps Donald Trump is the most infamous for this kind of rhetoric. He has infuriated and polarized large parts of our country by his recent verbal attacks on Muslims. His recent call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. has led many politicians and citizens alike to state that such bigoted speech creates unnecessary fear about Muslims and plays into the hands of ISIS’s tactics to incite fear.

These are only a few of the events that have caused fear and dissension in recent months. And they also beg an important question: is religion causing people’s mental health to suffer? All of these instances reflect people committing or supporting atrocious acts in the name of religion. It seems plausible from these and other events that the culpability falls on the religious system itself. Does this justify religiophobia? Do major religions like Islam and Christianity foster atrocity?

The impact of religion on mental health has been the subject of psychological research for some time now. And the results overwhelmingly indicate that religion and spirituality are generally helpful for people’s state of mind. Practices such as meditation and prayer activate brain structures that regulate emotional responses. Those who turn to God or another higher power in times of stress generally find great comfort in the belief that an entity cares for them. And religion also benefits people by helping them construct a system of meaning for the world.

However, other studies have found that those with depression actually felt more oppressed and experienced lower life satisfaction due to being devoutly religious. Some aspects of religion caused people to experience inner conflicts that led to increased psychological distress and more mental health problems down the road.

So what causes such different results?

It comes down to the view of God that someone has and the view of God that a person’s religion teaches. If a person’s religion teaches an abandoning of God’s love or a fierce, punishing God, then mental health struggles will most likely arise. People who believe in an angry, vengeful god are more likely to suffer from paranoia, obsessional thinking, social anxiety, and compulsions. There has even been a link to an earlier risk of death for people who hold such views.

On the other hand, those who practice a religion that teaches and focuses on God’s love and care usually have stronger mental health. In these cases, religion actually aids flourishing and happiness.

So what should we do with this information? I have a few ideas for those attempting to figure out if their religious views are helping or hindering their mental health. Consider these questions:

1.     What’s your primary view of God? Are you mostly afraid of your God or Gods? If you answered yes, then you have a proclivity toward psychological distress and depression because of your religion. What evidence do you have to support your view of God is correct? Is there a possibility that you are misinterpreting something that is leading to a faulty view of him or her? Remember, all religions have one thing in common: to give instruction that leads to morality and increased enlightening. If your religion isn’t doing this, then there’s a high chance you’ve made an error in your understanding of it somewhere along the way, or that it is being taught to you in a skewed manner.

2.     Does your religious group or church emphasize exclusion and punishment over love, compassion, and acceptance? If so, then you’re most likely part of a group that is fostering an environment that will create higher mental health problems among its followers. Again, remember your religion’s primary purpose. Clarify it in your mind. If the punishing aspects of the religion outweigh the teachings on kindness, compassion, and acceptance, then you are involved in something damaging.

3.     If you’re having difficulty identifying if you are part of a religion that is harmful, notice the emotions that you feel after attending your religious services or events. Do you feel mostly positive, relaxed, and peaceful? Or do you feel primarily tense, anxious, and fearful? Again, if the primary emotions you experience are negative, you are most likely part of something that isn’t going to further your enlightenment or religious understanding. Check in with your body regularly and listen to it after attending religious events.

Remember, it is people operating on damaged religious views that carry out events like the Planned Parenthood shooting and the ISIS attacks. These perpetrators have significant mental health struggles because they didn’t recognize early enough that they were aligned with a warped spirituality. Take caution to understand how your particular views are influencing the way you see people in this world. Align with groups that encourage you to foster greater compassion, empathy, and acceptance. These are the key ingredients to superior mental health, enlightenment, and wellbeing.

Making the holidays suck less: How to approach the jolliest time of year when you don't feel very merry and bright.

Let’s first debunk a myth about the holidays. For years, people have perpetuated the idea that suicide rates skyrocket between Thanksgiving and Christmas, leading us to conclude that the holidays breed this intense depression and loneliness.

Let’s put this myth to rest. The truth is that the month of December has the fewest suicides than any other time of year. What is interesting to note, however, is that there is a significant increase of suicides right after Christmas — a 40% increase. From the studies that have been done on depression, suicide, and the holidays, the consensus seems to tell us that the winter holidays insulate many from suicide, but there is a sort of rebound effect that occurs once the holidays have passed. This is a sad reality and might cause some anxiety in my readers who may be struggling emotionally this time of year. But, hark, I also bring you good news! Keep reading.

There are several reasons why we see an increase in suicide after the holidays, but it seems the reason that is most obvious has to do with loneliness and isolation. In one study, the most common stressor listed by many patients who were treated at a psychiatric center during the holidays listed loneliness and being without a family as their primary stressor. Loneliness is a modern day epidemic. Neurologically and emotionally, humanity is wired for human connection, yet we often don’t experience it in a fulfilling way — sometimes we even sabotage or run away from true connection. Loneliness is a signal that we need to reconnect. But often that signal goes ignored.

Commercials and popular holiday movies portray people enjoying their families and experiencing fulfilling traditions during the holiday season. Often this insidious messaging can make us second-guess our families and the quality of our own relationships. Or maybe we just truly do not have a close or fulfilling family. Usually these messages do not portray reality and it’s important we are aware of them and not judge ourselves by them.

The old, true adage tells us “we can’t pick our family.” If individuals could trade in their given family, I know several who would be in line to exchange theirs. Maybe you came from an abusive family. Maybe you have parents who don’t understand you, and you feel even lonelier when you spend time with them. Maybe you can’t see your family because they live far away. Maybe you don’t have living family members anymore.

The sad reality is…we are stuck with the families we were born into, and sometimes we lose the family we have. But, here’s the good news: families can also be invented; that is, they can be selectively chosen. If you are beginning to feel the holiday blues set in this season because of a lack of family, then try the following to see if you can make this winter season suck less.

· Grieve. Grieve the family you don’t have. Grief is an emotion that often gets a bad reputation, but it is important for our mental health. When we grieve we are sending a message to ourselves that we matter. Think about that. When you ignore your sadness and fail to grieve, the inherent message is that your emotions, longings, and desires do not matter. You are making a choice to actively ignore them by ignoring grief. When you grieve, you are giving those longings a space to be acknowledged, expressed, and released. Grief that goes unacknowledged usually comes back to manifest itself in a dysfunctional way. Allow yourself to feel sad about the family you wish you had. (Shameless plug alert: if you’d like to listen to a podcast episode I produced to help others understand grief better, check it out here).

· Dream. This is the fun part. If you’re single and plan to one day create your own family, what would you want the holidays to look like? How can you still experience a fulfilling holiday without a close immediate family in the meantime? This year a dear friend of mine and I decided to spend Thanksgiving together and invited a few of our other friends to participate. We spent an entire afternoon dreaming about what we wanted our holiday to look like — complete with pumpkin pancakes and a football game in the park. I can honestly say it has been one of my favorite holidays to date.

· Connect. If you struggle to find people to spend the holidays with, then take that as a sign and an opportunity to make changes. Maybe your reality is that you do not have close or fulfilling relationships. Not having close relationships starts with you — you must take responsibility for that and may need to change some things in order to maintain closeness in your life. Learn how to connect so you can correct this problem. It’s a frustrating reality that many people will spend the holidays alone when they would rather spend them with others. Move toward connecting with others to see how they are spending their holidays. Ask about your neighbor’s holiday plans when you are making small talk at the mailboxes. Invite people over to your home when you see them in the hallways of your apartment complex. Step out of your comfort zone and learn how to connect.

Remember: you do not have to feel all kinds of merry and bright this holiday season. There may be some significant reasons that your holidays feel crummy. But you have a choice about how you can embrace this holiday season. Give yourself time. Connecting takes effort and practice, and substantial relationships take time to foster. And if you end up spending time by yourself this holiday, then that’s okay too. It doesn’t mean you’re not special or lovable, friend. It just means that you’re figuring it out, and it’s okay if that results in an unpleasant holiday experience for the time being.

In the meantime, turn on some 90’s N’Sync Christmas carols and dance your ass off. That’s one of my favorite Christmas traditions.

Thanksgiving is good for your health. No, I'm not joking.

Okay, many people are already feeling guilty about the massive weight gain that is surely to happen over Thanksgiving. And, if you’re not dreading the food coma, then you’re at least dreading your racist, out-of-touch relatives. Tell me you’ve seen the SNL skit showing how Adele saved Thanksgiving. The video has been going viral all week. If you have somehow been living under a rock and haven’t seen it yet, do yourself a favor and watch it right now:

My suspician is that this video went viral because so many people related to it. It speaks truth about those family members we hate to be around because they make us lose our shit. But I want to encourage you to focus on something else this Thanksgiving: the parts of the holiday that have actually been proven to improve our physical and mental health. Check out what giving thanks actually does for you:

· It makes you sleep better. And let’s be honest — you need all the rest you can get when crazy Aunt Betty starts talking about how Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall across the Mexico border is actually a good example of a foreign policy plan.

· It decreases anxiety and depression. This has been confirmed across multiple studies that those who practice gratitude on a regular basis suffer less anxiety and depressive symptoms. If you typically get a little blue this time of year, practice more gratitude now to prepare yourself for this holiday season.

· It causes you to enjoy your life more. Quit griping about your Nissan Sentra clunker with the paint damage. Or is that just me? Focus on the things that are making your life awesome; perspective can make all the difference.

· It helps you age better. In his book, George Vaillant found that “[those] who have aged most successfully are those who worry less about cholesterol and waistlines and more about gratitude and forgiveness.” Quit saving up for that botox. You won’t need it if you learn how to be thankful.

· It makes you a better friend. And we all need great friends. We all want people who have our backs. Practicing gratitude can help you become that person for somebody. Gratitude has shown to boost prosocial behaviors like lending emotional support and helping others.

· It strengthens your heart. This is no joke. A 1995 study found that practicing gratitude can actually change your heart variability. This may be beneficial in treating hypertension and sudden death in patients with congestive heart failure.

· It makes you more resilient to attacks from others. Those who practice gratitude are more likely to not retaliate when others criticize them. And let’s be honest, whose mother doesn’t criticize them when they go home for Thanksgiving?

You may still be thinking: “I’m not the gratitude type. Being thankful doesn’t come easily for me. Plus, you don’t know how difficult my family can be!” Believe me, I know. But we all have to start somewhere. This Thanksgiving season, start small by writing a few things down each week that you’re grateful for. And share that list with a friend.

Another good way to introduce yourself to the practice of gratitude is to borrow from the Japanese Naikan tradition of meditation. Three questions this tradition encourages are:

What have I received from __________

What have I given to __________ ?

What troubles and difficulties have I caused __________ ?

These questions are designed to encourage reflection on some of our closest and possibly most troubling relationships. They help us to have a more realistic view of our conduct and responsibility in how we have created the particular relationship dynamic that exists.

Above all, remember that giving thanks is a choice. You can choose to do it this Thanksgiving or not. But let the facts speak for themselves. You’ll be a much more enjoyable person if you learn to express a little gratitude this year. And remember: it could always be worse. Always.

So, tell me. What are you grateful for?

What the pope doesn’t understand about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal.

Last week, Pope Francis was praised for making history by addressing a mixed session of Congress and confronting them on controversial issues like climate change, poverty, and the Syrian refugee crisis. However, those weren’t his only controversial remarks during his American visit. On the last day of his trip, Pope Francis addressed a room full of seminarians and bishops to discuss the Catholic sexual abuse scandal that has marred the religion’s reputation for some time now. Many were looking forward to hearing how the pope was going to address this scandal. After all, this is a pope who shows a remarkable sensitivity to the marginalized people in the world—more so than many of his predecessors.

That hope quickly vanished, however, when Pope Francis took the stage to address the crowd. The majority of his speech was built on praise for the bishops and Catholic leaders for how they have handled the controversy. He lauded the bishops for their “courage” and “generous commitment to bring healing to the victims.” He told them that he felt their pain and their suffering for the role they were taking in absolving this scandal.

The pope’s comments were met with hurt, disappointment, and betrayal from many survivors who experienced the abuse of Catholics leaders over the years. One survivor said, “It was shocking and insulting, and it is hurtful. I don’t know how you could make a case that would support these comments.”

Here’s the deal. I like Pope Francis. And I think most people do. He’s been a powerful voice on issues that many former popes refused to discuss. But many have accused the pope of turning a blind eye when it comes to those who have incurred abuse at the hands of Catholic leaders.  And I sadly have to agree.

The pope has remained a bit silent in addressing the victims. He actually refused to meet with victims before becoming the pope, and it was fifteen months into his papacy before he finally agreed to meet with any abuse victims. Here are a few lessons I think the pope could learn in order for him to effectively address this scandal.

1.     Shift the priorities. One of the biggest criticisms of the pope’s address is the accolades he gave to the bishops for how they have handled the scandal. Think about how a survivor would view those remarks and praises. Many bishops within the Catholic Church have actively sought to cover up the scandal and have even overlooked the abuse for years. Of course not all bishops have done that, but many have. From the eyes of the victim, it seems that the pope offered the majority of his condolences to the bishops—those who were inconvenienced by the sexual abuse second handedly. The pope is not adequately portraying the experience of the victims in his public address. In any case of abuse, the victim should always be first priority. From the outside looking in, the pope’s actions seem to indicate more allegiance to the bishops (many of whom re-traumatized the victims by their failure to act when they learned of the abuse) instead of the survivors.

2.     Acknowledge the victims’ pain more openly. Pope Francis has appeared to be skittish at the prospect of meeting with survivors and acknowledging their struggle publicly. His address this past week in America marks one of the few times he has spoken about the scandal. When he has addressed the trauma the victims endured, it has mostly been during private meetings with the survivors. This connotes secrecy and a lack of acknowledgement. It’s one thing for the pope to validate the victims behind closed doors, but it’s quite another for him to address them publicly, and chastise those who have failed to act to protect them. The pope undermines the gravity of the victims experience when he openly praises the bishops for their “courage” to confront the scandal. Survivors of abuse need to be heard and advocated for before anything else. Survivors are victimized behind closed doors…they don’t need to be placated behind closed doors also.

3.      Take full responsibility. In a gesture to show how sexual abuse is a universal problem and not just a Catholic Church problem, Pope Francis met with a few victims during his U.S. visit who had not been sexually abused by anyone within the Catholic Church. Rather, relatives or other adult figures had abused them. A Vatican spokesperson said this gesture was done to show a larger perspective. “We know the problem is a universal problem, in the universal church, and also in society,” the spokesperson said. Although this might appear to be a gesture of understanding and validation, it feels and looks more like a diversion tactic. Instead of being advocated for, victims got a response in the vein of: “sure, abuse happened in the Catholic Church, but it also happens everywhere, so don’t be too mad at us.” If you were to tell one of the 538 million people in Africa who was dying from a lack of access to clean water, “Hey I know this sucks, but there are also 180 million people in Southwest and Central Asia that are in your same position. Lots of people have this problem,” you’d most likely get punched in the face. That fact is irrelevant to the person’s suffering. Rather than a “reality check” of universal problems, this person needs solutions, compassion, and professional help. The pope’s stance to zoom out on the universal problem of sexual abuse appears to be a diffusion of responsibility within the Catholic Church and fails to address the scandal directly.

I understand that it is many people’s inclination to handle a delicate matter like sexual abuse privately and quietly. However, a scandal of this magnitude appears to be of epidemic proportions and needs direct leadership and a direct response. My hope is that Pope Francis will realize that the survivors of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal don’t need private sympathies. They need the church to take responsibility, throw out the bad guys who are contributing to the rape culture within the church by silencing the victims, and collaborate with the survivors to help them find healing so this does not keep happening. As for now, the abuse cycle continues. Just last week another Catholic priest was found guilty for sexually abusing boys in an orphanage. God have mercy.

The only two steps to understanding mental health.

The last five years have been a busy time for mental health problems making the news. We’ve had numerous mass killings by shooters who allegedly suffered from various mental health problems; Andreas Lubitz, who had a long history of battling depression, intentionally crashed a flight killing all 149 passengers on board; actor Robin Williams committed suicide, which led to a very public discourse about suicide and it’s supposed “selfishness;” and just a few years ago, Representative Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down by a man who was later discovered to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia.

These are just a few of the newsworthy events we have seen recently that were related to mental health. They all have one thing in common: someone battling a mental health problem doing something dangerous, scary, or harmful.

Stories like this are sad. And they make us afraid.

When people do scary and harmful things for reasons we don’t understand, it strikes fear in our bones. We don’t know what to do, so we usually blame and stigmatize to numb our discomfort. Fear is the natural response to things we don’t understand. The more we don’t understand something, the more afraid we become of it. And I can think of nothing more feared and stigmatized today than issues and concerns around mental health. But I would like to offer you a different template for understanding mental health that can help to make events like these less nonsensical, and a little less scary.

The first ingredient I use to help me better understand mental health is empathy. When I am afraid of something, it’s usually a sure sign that I don’t understand it. So, in order to decrease my fear, I have learned to move toward that person or thing to try and get a more honest understanding of what it would be like to be them. This requires that I ask honest and respectful questions with an open mind.

In the aftermath of the above tragedies, I heard some pretty unempathetic statements. I heard some version of the following in my conversations with people after each of the events:

“People with mental health disorders should not be able to be pilots. Don’t you know that crazy people don’t need a job where they are responsible for the lives of others?” 

“Robin Williams was so selfish. I cannot think of a more selfish action than committing suicide. He should have known better.”

“Some crazy lunatic got ahold of a gun and shot down a politician. We need to lock up these schizophrenics so the world can be a safer place.”

These statements do not address the reality of mental health and do nothing to offer a constructive solution that’s based in fact. Rather, they are statements seeped in blame to relieve the person’s own fear and feelings of powerlessness.

Empathetic statements achieve the opposite. Empathy doesn’t seek answers in blame. Empathy seeks answers in truth. It fosters a curiosity to understand others—to get a better sense of what it’s like to be someone else, so better solutions can be found.

Empathy sounds like this:

I wonder what people who struggle with mental health problems today are finding helpful? What can friends and family members of those struggling do to help and what resources do they have?

I don’t understand how someone can hurt so badly that it would cause them to take their own life. I need to ask someone I know who has battled depression how that works.

These mass shootings are really scary. I wonder if all people who battle mental health disorders act in such violent ways? Who can I ask to find that out? 

These are the beginning wonderings of someone who is operating from a place of empathy rather than blame and fear. And if someone is honestly asking these questions, their empathy will naturally enlarge. The honest pursuit of truth usually leads us to connection with others and breeds more compassion.

This leads to the second thing I have found to help understand mental health: good information. There are a lot of myths floating around about mental health that do not have one shred of truth to them. And, sadly, they continue to get perpetuated. In order to truly understand something, we have to make sure we are getting reliable information from reliable sources, and we need to understand the facts. Consider these myths that were widely publicized after a major mental health news story:

Schizophrenics are usually violent and dangerous. Actually, being diagnosed with schizophrenia does not make someone violent. Someone with schizophrenia can become violent if they use drugs and alcohol. But so can anyone who abuses substances.

People who commit suicide are selfish. This is a bit more subjective, but it is my opinion (as well as many other mental health professionals) that suicide is not rooted in selfishness. Often people who are suicidal are so depressed that they feel their mere presence makes others more miserable. So in their depressed state, ridding the world of themselves seems perfectly reasonable and kind.

Mental illness makes someone unsuitable for many jobs. Let’s be clear: many people will suffer from some form of mental illness in their lifetime. And most people will not commit a violent act. Depression was not the only factor that caused Lubitz to crash the plane. We may never know the entirety of his reasoning, but one thing I do know: using depression as a sole scapegoat does nothing to decrease the stigma of mental illness or solve the problem.

If you’d like a good place to start to begin accessing good information about mental health, I would suggest brushing up on some of the mental health basics. The National Institute for Mental Health does a great job of explaining some of the basic mental illnesses and why they occur. Also, Mind for Better Health has some great resources to help nonprofessionals understand how they can help others who are struggling.

Practice saying the words ‘depression,’ ‘suicide,’ and ‘anxiety’ so they roll off the tongue easily. They aren’t bad words. Start conversations. Ask someone if they are depressed if you see the symptoms. Become known as a safe person that isn’t afraid to talk about mental health.

By combining empathy and good information, hopefully you will notice a change in how you begin comprehending mental health. Maybe you will begin to understand people better by seeing the person instead of the suicide. Or hear the suffering instead of the disorder. Perhaps you’ll begin to feel empathy instead of judgment.

The first place to start is usually to simply listen. Listen to what is being said about mental health in your circles and listen to those around you who are struggling firsthand with a mental health problem. One of my favorite authors, Margaret Wheatley, describes listening as ‘holy.’ Let’s practice holy listening together to elevate the conversation about mental health. Let’s listen intelligently and compassionately—pay attention, ask good questions, and walk in another’s shoes to get a better understanding of how mental health affects all of us.


The three ways trauma traps you.

In a past blog, I discussed three primary ways trauma can affect someone. Building on that, this blog will expand that explanation and understanding of trauma to include the negative cycles it creates, and not just it’s short-term effects. Trauma is far-reaching and cyclical, so it’s important to take some time understand these cycles and how difficult it can be to escape them.

The first cycle trauma creates is one of self-abuse. A recent study concluded that being sexually abused was one of the primary predictors of girls getting involved in the juvenile justice system. In Oregon alone, 93% of the girls in the juvenile system had been sexually or physically abused. Furthermore, this same study concluded that those juvenile systems were not equipped to handle the underlying problem of trauma. As a result, these young women who end up in the cycle of the system have little to no opportunity to address the issues that landed them there to begin with.

One young lady explained that she had fled her abusive home at a young age and met a man at the age of 10 who coerced her into selling her body for money. For the next several years, she worked as a prostitute. This particular girl’s mother was addicted to drugs and her father was in prison. Each time she was arrested for prostitution, she was made to feel by authorities that it was her fault. However, she really had no idea how else she could make money. As a result, each time she was arrested and released, she had little choice but to return to the man who was exploiting her.

Trauma that happens during childhood inscribes a very powerful message onto a kid’s developing brain. It inscribes a message that sounds something like “You are disposable” or “You are damaged goods.” Because the developing brain of a child is vulnerable to its environment, being abused at the hands of an adult can send an influential message that adults are abusive and untrustworthy, and that the child is disposable or worthless. The resulting emotions of believing these messages make it difficult to think highly of oneself and to accomplish basic life tasks in the future. The bottom line: childhood trauma traps someone into a lifetime of self-abusive thinking and actions if not properly processed and treated. Young people who end up in the system because of childhood trauma are then less likely to be able to escape this part of the cycle because their resources go further downhill once in the system since juvenile systems do little to reverse this cycle of self-abuse.

Secondly, trauma creates a cycle of poverty. I teach human development classes to undergraduate students at a local college here in Denver. We often discuss how poverty makes humans vulnerable and stunt one’s development. But many people do not understand the extensive role that trauma plays in an economical sense.

Consider these findings from a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

·      The average cost for someone who experienced abuse as a child is $210,012 over the course of his or her lifetime.

·      Someone who was abused as a child on average earns $5890 less per year than someone who was not mistreated as a child.

·      Rises in unemployment are almost always followed by rises in child maltreatment cases.

Another study broke down the costs to look like this for a childhood victim of trauma over the course of their lifetime:

·      $32,648 in childhood health care costs;

·      $10,530 in adult medical costs;

·      $144,360 in productivity losses;

·      $7,728 in child welfare costs;

·      $6,747 in criminal justice costs;

·      $7,999 in special education costs.

This is a lot of money and a stressful impact that childhood trauma can leave on someone’s life. Again, the bottom line is that trauma not only creates an emotional cycle, it creates a financial one as well.

Finally, trauma creates a generational cycle. That is, it can get passed down through generations. Recent research has shown that trauma effects can actually be passed down to our children biologically. The short is this: trauma impacts the production of our short RNA molecules. When that happens, our normal cellular processes get messed up too, and when this occurs, our emotions and reactions do not necessarily function as they should. Essentially, these abnormal short RNA molecules can then be transmitted to our offspring for up to three generations!

Furthermore, trauma survivors can unknowingly pass down social effects of their trauma to their children. Typically those who have experienced something traumatic can begin to operate from a belief that the world is unsafe. This belief can easily be transferred to children through how a parent interacts with his or her child. Overprotection, coddling, catastrophizing, or not allowing the child to individuate from the parent are all behaviors from a parent that can communicate the belief that “the world is unsafe,” even if the child has not experienced something traumatic firsthand. Soon the child’s brain may begin interacting with the world more fearfully and with more hyper vigilance than is good or necessary.

Trauma is not an innocent thing that just happens to people. It is serious and should not be minimized. Too often we think the bad things that happen to us are simply part of living. Although it is true that trauma can be an unfortunate part of life, it’s important to pay attention to the way that traumatic events change and shape us. Trauma can often throw us into cycles that leave us feeling disheartened and hopeless, or searching for an escape. If something has happened to you that you can’t stop thinking about, that’s usually an indicator that you would benefit from some assistance to get back on track with a clearer mind. Trauma cycles can be pervasive and combatting them often takes a lot of work and energy on the behalf of the survivor. If you find yourself caught in one or all of these cycles, feel free to reach out. I’d love to help you get back on track. 

Three tips for the fatherless on Father’s Day.

Technically speaking, everyone has a father. None of us would be here if we didn’t. The biological fact that everyone has a father, however, does not guarantee that everyone has a relationship with their dad. Many report having a wonderful father, while others are not close with, or don’t know their dad at all. Although 69 percent of people report they have a close relationship with their father, 90 percent report having a close relationship with their mother. In other words, for about thirty percent of the population, Father’s Day is probably a complicated holiday. While some are buying their dad a gift, gushing over how lucky they are to have a loving father, or changing their Facebook profile photo to a picture of their father holding them as a child, you might instead be feeling a pang—a pang that communicates loss, hurt, or even betrayal.

If this describes you, then I hope to offer you some comfort this Father’s Day. But in order to get to the part about how to cope with a tough Father’s day, I first want to talk about the concept of “father,” and address the myths out there telling us that those who grew up without fathers are destined for mental health problems throughout their lives. While this does have some merit and supportive evidence, it isn’t completely true. Emotional pain is usually easier to cope with when it is well understood – so let’s look at what psychology has taught us about fathers, and then get to the good part – where Father’s Day can become a less painful holiday.

What Does the Research Teach Us About Fathers?

Various studies show how fathers influence their children. These studies have shown us that active fathers produce children who are more emotionally stable, more confident in their surroundings, and have stronger social connections.

These particular studies examined children of heterosexual parents.  The bottom line: kids raised by both an active mother and father who are emotionally available to their child usually raise children who are well-adjusted. But what about children who don’t grow up in this environment? That is, what about children who grow up in “nontraditional” settings? The research I cited above has been used in certain contexts to promote the idea that children must have both a mother and a father in order to lead well-adjusted lives. Simply put, this is a myth. Another myth tells us that children who are raised by a single parent suffer more from substance abuse and emotional instability than those raised by two heterosexual parents.

In one study that analyzed various children of nontraditional parenting settings (single mothers, same-sex parents, etc.), they found one commonality that primarily predicted a child’s success: “The family type that is best for children is one that has responsible, committed, stable parenting. Two parents are, on average, better than one, but one really good parent is better than two not-so-good ones.”

Here’s the bottom line: fathers matter. So do mothers. And so does any other person who takes the time to care for a child by being emotionally available, consistent, and loving.  So, yes, fathers are important. And I’m thankful I had one that was involved in my life. But, the hype about how most social problems can be solved if we had more active fathers in the lives of children is not exactly accurate. It’s a good idea, but it’s not the only solution to the problem of maladjusted children and adults. Or in the words of my old southern high school guidance counselor, Reba Wood, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

 No matter your parental situation as a child, a lack of nurturance from parents can often be a key factor in causing emotional instability and woundedness in adults. That lack of paternal nurturance might be from a single mother who was unavailable due to working long hours. Or perhaps from a father who was present in your life but just didn’t know how to connect with you or inadvertently communicated harmful messages to you. The truth is, it isn’t the constitution of the family that causes a child to become a maladjusted versus a stable adult. What makes a difference is the level of nurturance and discipline that a child received from the available parents, guardians, and adult figures in his or her life.

If you are struggling this Father’s Day because you have experienced a lack of paternal nurturance in your life, first, let me extend my deepest empathy to you. I know it’s a hard day and can represent a reminder of something painful. And for that, I’m truly sorry.

However, let me direct your attention to something a bit more hopeful: we can overcome past paternal wounds and move toward flourishing. Psychology has proven it time and again, and it’s never too late for healing. Our brains and spirits are resilient and want to thrive. This Father’s Day, if you find yourself struggling, let me offer you three things to help yourself move through the pain:

1.     Identify what you feel you are lacking by not having a father in your life. It’s easy to be bummed out because you may not have the father that you want. However, are you clear on what exactly you’re bummed out about? What are the specific losses you’ve incurred by being fatherless? Maybe it’s never having paternal validation, so now you seek it relentlessly from others. Or perhaps you are incredibly self-critical because your father criticized you excessively during childhood. Whatever it is, look for the specific things you are missing and searching for by not having the dad you desired. Identify those losses clearly and then mourn them. Mourning is not self-pity. The difference between the two is that self-pity perpetuates rumination and stagnation. Mourning allows emotions to be fully processed so that one can move forward toward resiliency.

2.     Look for mentors. As the above research indicates, paternal love can be found in other places besides two heterosexual parents. It’s often ideal for it to be found in mothers or fathers, but this does not always happen. Are their people in your life that you admire? If so, why? Is there an opportunity to spend time with them? Can you have them over for dinner? Can you spend time with their families to observe and be present with them? Be open to the various kinds of people that can fill this role. And, even if you have daddy-specific wounds, keep in mind that your mentors don’t necessarily need to be male. I can personally say that I have learned so much about true masculinity, identity, and my maleness from women who have served mentor roles in my life. Be open and move toward the people that are presenting themselves in your path. Spend time with them and ask them to speak into areas of your life. Perhaps they can provide the nurturing that you craved from your own parents and never received.

3.     Parent yourself. This probably sounds a bit weird, so let me explain. Think about the two primary functions that parents fulfill: nurturance and discipline. These two things can be administered to yourself. An exercise I often encourage many of my clients to do is to acknowledge the parts of themselves that they don’t like. For example, that part of you that is self-critical. Or that part of you that makes reckless mistakes that aren’t in your best interest. We all have those parts. And usually our first reaction to these “parts” is to beat them down, self-deprecate, and try to gain control over them through willpower and force. Usually this doesn’t lead to behavior change. When parents do these types of things to their children over unpleasant behavior, it usually leads to long-lasting wounds and the undesired behaviors become exacerbated. Rather, a good parent accepts their child, empathizes with the reasons the child is acting the way he or she is, provides compassion, and reflects self-awareness so the child can gain insight into their actions. The driving idea here is radical acceptance and empathy with your faults in order to fuel behavior change. Acknowledge the parts of you that are acting out due to paternal wounds and foster self-awareness and empathy to encourage behavior change instead of self-criticism.

Father’s Day is tough for a lot of folks for a lot of different reasons. But it turns out my old guidance counselor was a lot wiser than I thought when I was a teenager. You can receive paternal nurturance and healing in several different ways. Look for those opportunities and be kind to yourself.

Happy Father’s Day.

The only two emotions men are allowed to feel and why it's a problem.

It’s the answer I probably hate most when I ask a question: I don’t know. And as a therapist who works a lot with men and adolescent boys, I seem to get it a lot.

Me: Why do you think you responded that way?

Male Client: I don’t know.

Me: Did that response serve you in any way?

Male Client: I don’t know. 

Me: How did you feel afterwards?

Male Client: Fine. 

It’s a painful conversation. And sometimes I can feel my patience running thin when the dialogue has gone on like this for most of the session. However, my empathy has expanded significantly in recent years as I’ve sought to understand this interesting dynamic when men are asked about emotional experiences.

There are two main emotions that men seemingly feel most of the time: anger and apathy. It frustrates many when they try to emotionally connect with a male only to be met with hostility or indifference. It drives many to believe that men are simple, ignorant creatures who have no feelings or emotional intelligence. But is that really true? Do men really only feel anger or apathy? I find this hard to swallow. And that’s because it isn’t true.

First, we must look at the history of what we understand to be traditional masculinity and the ways deemed acceptable for men to relate to one another. In the 19th century, men in America had much more latitude to be affectionate and caring with other men. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at these pictures:

(Photos taken from Picturing Men by John Ibson, 2006)

No, these men aren’t expressing their repressed homosexual desires. This was a common way men engaged and showed affection to one another during this time. So what happened? Why are men afraid to show emotion today when they were so affectionate with each other not so long ago? A lot happened.

E. Anthony Rotundo explains the complicated history of male friendship in his book American Manhood. In the 20th century, many religious leaders and politicians began to decry homosexuality as being incompatible with true masculinity. And in the 1950’s, homosexuality was seen to be closely associated with Communism. That was enough to scare any guy into keeping his hands off other dudes. The Industrial Revolution also encouraged men to view one another as competition instead of friends. And with the increase of mobility and vehicles, men began following their work to other places, which made it difficult to sustain friendships along the way. Prior to this, proximity allowed friendships to remain more stable and ongoing. Now with more people driving places farther and farther away, friendships naturally suffered.

Also, as homosexuality became more talked about and more commonplace, so did homophobia. Men became scared to be “too close” to one another for fear of being labeled as “queer” or “gay.” And as the rise of homophobia increased, so did the rise of gender roles (the set of behaviors, actions, or attitudes that we assign to a certain sex). But what exactly is the male gender role and what does it actually promote? That’s a good question, and some researchers thought so too. In their studies, they found that the American male gender role encourages men to:

(1)   restrict emotions

(2)   avoid being feminine

(3)   focus on toughness and aggression

(4)   be self-reliant

(5)   make achievement the top priority

(6)   be non-relational

(7)   objectify sex

(8)   be homophobic.

The negative aspects of such a gender role have left many men in a predicament. See, we know that men and women both experience emotions—we have the research to prove it. It’s not whether or not men experience the full gamut of emotions like women do—it is in how they display their emotions that we find the biggest differences. In one study on empathy, researchers found that men and women experienced emotions pretty similarly physiologically. However, women showed much more emotion on their faces in most situations. And this would make since if men feel pressure to abide by the traditional male gender role—they wouldn’t feel permitted to display their emotions freely, as the female gender role encourages. So instead, they numb or stuff them.

But this is the point I want to make: when a male chooses to abide closely to the male gender role, to restrict his emotions and focus on toughness and aggression, something negative begins to happen to this male’s emotional development. The male psyche does not then know how to handle emotions at all—his or anyone else’s. So the man becomes emotionally stunted, angry, and apathetic. This is the guy who shuts down when his partner expresses anger or frustration. It’s the guy who doesn’t know how to deal with something sad so he turns to alcohol, sex, or Netflix. Or it’s the guy who lashes out in anger when criticized or confronted because he doesn’t know another way to handle the feelings of guilt, shame or embarrassment.  We all probably know this guy and we have the strict male gender role and our collective upholding of it to thank.

Shame researcher Brene Brown discovered an interesting finding in her research on emotions. She learned that we cannot selectively numb emotions. That is, when we choose to numb the negative emotions like sadness, shame, or guilt, we also simultaneously numb the positive ones like joy, excitement, or happiness.

I want to give the men out there a more fulfilling way of handling their emotions. It is possible to increase your ability to deal with your emotional experiences better and more maturely. The following model will hopefully help you do just that. It was originally created by Kennedy-Moore and Watson and provides a template to men who need some guidance in reclaiming their emotional lives. I took this version of the model from male researcher, Dr. Will Meek. It has been adapted in recent years:

1. Prereflexive Action: An event creates an automatic feeling that is due to a physiological change within the body. 

2. Awareness: We become aware of the physical sensation. Problems arise when we ignore the feeling or deny its existence. Ask yourself: What am I feeling? What are the symptoms?

3. Labeling: We give a name to the feeling we are experiencing. Problems arise when we do not name them appropriately, or have a lacking emotional vocabulary. Instead of properly labeling an emotion, we use words like “upset”, “bad”, or “weird”. To help yourself express your emotions, learn to accurately identify them by brushing up on your emotional vocabulary. If you need help, visit here to see the different ways emotions can be labeled.

4. Interpretation: We draw conclusions about what occurred to produce the feeling. Problems arise here when the cause is not acknowledged, there is a lack of attention to possible causes, or when there is a misattribution. When this is true, we say things like “I have no idea why I am feeling this way,” and place the cause on something that doesn’t truly connect to the feeling. Or, many blame another state, such as being “tired.” Ask yourself: What really caused the feeling?

5. Evaluation: We evaluate the feeling as being acceptable or unacceptable based on the situation, personal identity, personal history, and cultural expectations. Problems arise here when we view an emotion as unacceptable, or a reaction to something as illegitimate. Remember: emotions are acceptable and valid signals of something that is happening, or are an understandable reaction to something.

6. Decision: We make a decision to take action in response to the feeling (such as expressing it or confronting the thing that caused the emotion. We might tolerate the feeling without taking action, or seek relief from it by other methods (redirecting attention, artificially changing how we feel, using a defense mechanism, etc.). Problems arise here when there are real or perceived limitations on expression, fear of losing control, a low tolerance for negative emotions, use of unhealthy coping strategies, or lack of access to or education about healthy coping strategies or alternatives. Ask yourself: What would be a healthy way to cope with this emotion? What is the result of doing it? 

It’s a tedious process to begin handling emotions for the first time, but it’s also an invaluable one. Some men may scoff at the idea that they need to increase their emotional intelligence. But emotional intelligence adds so much to our lives. It improves physical health as you learn to manage stress better and become more aware of how things affect you. It improves relationships and decreases the tumult that can often plague our closest connections when emotions are not correctly identified and handled. It fosters healthier conflict resolution when you accurately read others’ emotions and can extend more empathy. Ultimately this fosters a stronger connection to the other person, which diffuses conflict rather quickly. And, finally, good leaders are emotionally intelligent. They lead people well and people are more apt to follow the leadership of someone they know gets the basics of the human emotional experience.

It takes practice, patience, and an ability to be courageous as you traverse into new territory. I wish you lots of courage on your journey, friend. Shoot me an email to let me know how it’s going as you start. I’d love to hear from you.

 

Lessons from the Rolling Stone-UVA Controversy: Three Ways to Be an Advocate for Assault Survivors When You Doubt Their Story

Last November, Rolling Stone magazine printed an article that has become incredibly controversial and has raised a lot of uncomfortable scrutiny about victims of sexual assault. It was entitled “A Rape on Campus,” and it documented the story of a girl they referenced as “Jackie,” who alleged she was gang-raped at a fraternity party on the University of Virginia campus. The reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, detailed Jackie’s grisly tale of the fraternity-party gang rape and the negligent actions of the UVA administrators to properly assist her or take action against the fraternity.

Shortly after its publication, however, the article came under staunch criticism since some of Jackie’s story could not be corroborated or accounted for. Her alleged descriptions of some of the people and conversations were riddled with inconsistencies. Ultimately, this led to Rolling Stone’s retraction of the story and they subsequently elicited the services of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to review their journalistic process. The idea was to help them understand how they could have published such a fabricated piece when they did not intend to. The full review can be found here.

Besides Rolling Stone getting some egg on their face and negatively affecting the lives of the many people involved in the telling of this story, there is something more damaging that occurred with its publication. As soon as it was realized that Jackie might have falsified her account of the gang rape, the incident became fuel for the pervasive belief that many victims of trauma and sexual assault lie about their experience. The tendency to not believe a victim when they tell their story is an aspect of rape culture that has protected perpetrators for years. The point here is not whether or not Jackie lied about her sexual assault—the point is that one story of a possible rape falsification should not give us the right to doubt every other victim’s story.

Although there are many intricacies and complications with Rolling Stone’s article, it serves as a general reminder about how to handle the stories of trauma victims. Consider these three thoughts if you encounter stories of sexual assault from people in your life:

1.     Know the stats. There have been many false statistics thrown around to indicate that anywhere from 1% to 90% of rape survivors lie about their sexual assault. Quite the spectrum, isn’t it? Most studies that have published such statistics have been found flawed and unreliable. In literature published a few years ago, this dynamic was re-evaluated by several studies that passed rigorous methodological methods. These studies found false rape reports constitute anywhere from 2-8% of reported sexual assaults (Lonsway, Archambault, & Lisak, 2009).

The bottom line: false rape reports are rare. Again, it’s important to note that it is unknown if Jackie from the Rolling Stone story was raped. It’s her details of the account that have fallen under scrutiny. Even Police Chief Timothy Longo said that although Jackie’s account of the gang rape could not be corroborated "doesn't mean that something terrible didn't happen to [her]" (Coronel, Coll, & Kravitz, 2015). 

2.     Know the signs. Tom Tremblay, a former police officer of the Burlington Police Department recalled what it was like for him whenever he interviewed a rape victim: “Unlike any other crime I responded to in my career, there was always this thought that a rape report was a false report” (Ruiz, 2013). Many in law enforcement might echo his sentiment. Many in the general public might echo his sentiment. Sometimes those in law enforcement (and others) misread cues from those who have recently survived a traumatic event. Often such events are recalled with flat affect from the victim. Or the victim cannot chronologically tell an account of what happened. Sometimes victims tell their story as if they doubt the story themselves—or even laugh nervously as they try to recall specific facts.

There are good reasons for these reactions. When a traumatic event occurs, the brain encodes it in a different way. In short, the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the brain structure largely responsible for logic, verbal ability, and accessing declarative memories) becomes impaired, while the amygdala (the brain’s structure responsible for encoding emotional memories) triggers the release of stress hormones and helps record sensory information about the memory (Ruiz, 2013). This is why many trauma survivors cannot readily recall the sequences of events or facts surrounding their assault, but they can recall with vivid detail the smells, sounds, or images they experienced.

For those in positions where they need to corroborate a victim’s story, it’s good to use questions like “What did you smell while this was happening?” “What images stand out to you most from the assault?” “What sounds were going on?” Questions that focus on sensory memory can usually garner information that can often be used to access the needed facts to corroborate the story.

3.     Know when to get objective help. Maybe you’re a parent listening to the story of your child. Maybe a friend who was recently victimized just recalled their story to you for the first time. It’s important to know your limitations due to your closeness to the victim. If you are trying to discern the truth about a child’s story, play therapy is a wonderful, non-directive way for trained clinicians to elicit themes from the child’s play that can be informative of what occurred. Proficiently trained play therapists do not direct a child’s play and wait for themes to emerge organically to protect the true inner experiences of the child.

Encourage those loved ones who have experienced a traumatic event to get professional help as they try to make sense of their story and the possible trauma symptoms that may have emerged.

If you’re a police officer or attorney that is working on the prosecution of a sexual assault case, consult with trained trauma professionals so you know how to ask good questions that don’t taint the facts and obscure objectivity.

Jackie’s case in the Rolling Stone feature is not indicative of all survivors of sexual assault. Of course those survivors who are brave enough to have a story published or broadcast about them need to understand they may undergo more scrutiny and fact checking than the average survivor—this is a journalist’s duty. If you are a survivor in such a position, know your limits and if you can withstand that type of scrutiny. If it comes out that Jackie has falsified everything about her rape account, then that’s a sign she needs help and attention as well. Either way is a cry for help and we should listen and do our best to respond within our capacity. And of course, if you are a trauma survivor and are looking for support, feel free to contact me for resources. Trauma is a messy and unfortunate event, and it helps to have someone help you navigate it.

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Coronel, S., Coll, S., & Kravitz, D. (2015, April 5). Rolling stone and UVA: The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Report. Rolling Stone. Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/a-rape-on-campus-what-went-wrong-20150405.

Lonsway, K. A., Archambault, J. & Lisak, D. (2009). False reports: Moving beyond the issue to successfully investigate and prosecute non-stranger sexual assault. The Voice: Helping prosecutors give victims a voice, 3(1), 1-11. Retrieved from http://www.ndaa.org/pdf/the_voice_vol_3_no_1_2009.pdf.

Ruiz, R. (2013, June). Why don’t cops believe rape victims? Brain science helps explain the problem—and solve it. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2013/06/
why_cops_don_t_believe_rape_victims_and_how_brain_science_can_solve_the.html.

Can Your Job Cause PTSD? Six Questions To Ask Yourself

Last month a Denver paramedic, Debbie Kibel-Crawford, committed suicide shortly after she had responded to an accident where a train had hit and killed a pedestrian. Members of her family reported that the cause of her death was due to the overwhelming stress of her job (EMS1, 2015).

This heartbreaking story illustrates a rarely noticed or discussed fact about trauma: it can deeply affect us even when the traumatic event did not directly happen to us. In a previous blog, I spelled out the specific ways trauma impacts the brain and our behavior. However, many people believe that they can only experience the impacts of trauma if they have been directly victimized by something distressing. Many people who have been involved in something traumatic, but did not personally experience it, do not view what they are dealing with as stressful enough to warrant any type of intervention. This was most likely the case with Crawford.

Someone who encounters traumatic events in their everyday job may not have reason to believe they could be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The stress that Crawford felt at work was an expected part of her occupation, so how could it warrant alarm?

This is one of the biggest misconceptions about trauma. Trauma conjures up ideas of a direct event occurring to us such as a sexual assault, a physical attack, or being involved in the military or a war. However, this is an incomplete understanding of how it works. Unfortunately, there is a mismatch between what the brains flags as traumatic and what our societal or cultural ideas tell us is traumatic. The brain registers many more events as stressful than the world around us does.

The psychological phrase most commonly used to describe situations like Crawford’s is ‘secondary trauma.’ Secondary trauma is not a diagnosis in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, so many do not consider it a “real” problem. However, folks like the surviving members of Crawford’s family will adamantly tell you otherwise. And research has proved consistently that secondary trauma symptoms can be found in people working in fields that require them to see stressful things every day (e.g. firemen, paramedics, nurses, etc.). Many of the folks who work in these fields, however, do not believe what they are doing is traumatic. But their brain disagrees, and PTSD symptoms usually emerge (NCTSN, n.d.).

It’s important to recognize that trauma can take on many forms, and it can affect us in a variety of ways. Being a “classic victim” is not the only way that trauma can impact someone negatively. There are a multitude of stressful jobs in which “everyday tasks” have the potential to produce PTSD:

·      Assisting people who are in distress like most cops and firemen do each day,

·      Taking difficult phone calls all day long and listening to complaints in a customer service industry,

·      Being a nonprofit or clergy worker who works with individuals with painful backgrounds of neglect, abuse, or spiritual pain,

·      And, as in the case of Crawford, working as a medical professional where death can be an everyday reality.

Take a check of your mental health if you think you work in a field that is exceedingly stressful. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when considering whether or not you may be experiencing secondary trauma:

  1. Do I have difficulty separating my work from my personal life?
  2. Do I ruminate on stories or events I have heard or seen during my workday when I am not at work?
  3. Do I dread going to work because of what may happen while I am there?
  4. Do I feel increasingly more disconnected from my coworkers or loved ones?
  5. Do I sometimes feel my job is more than I can bear?
  6. Are my friends ever concerned about me because of my job?

If you answered yes to several of these questions, you may be experiencing secondary trauma. To learn more about secondary trauma and its effects visit here. Or if you decide you would like to take some steps to address some of your symptoms, shoot me an email. I would love to help you brainstorm as you figure out ways to get your mental health back on track.

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Denver medic’s family says stress of job contributed to suicide. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.ems1.com/ems-advocacy/articles/2109124-Denver-medics-family-says-stress-of-job-contributed-to-suicide.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Secondary traumatic stress. Retrieved from http://www.nctsn.org/resources/topics/secondary-traumatic-stress.

Three Ways Trauma Affects You

Many people do not think of themselves as a trauma survivor. When the word “trauma” is used, it often conjures up thoughts such as sexual violence, a physical attack, or being the victim of a crime. Although these are certainly traumatic events, they are not the only kinds of events that can produce trauma symptoms. In fact, I would argue that everyone has experienced trauma at some point in their life and has developed trauma symptoms, whether or not they identified the experience as traumatic at the time.

Trauma is something that exceeds one’s threshold of stress tolerance. Not only will severe events like a physical or sexual assault cause psychological trauma, but trauma can also be caused by events such as a divorce, death, or being bullied. Trauma expert, Peter Levine, notes that trauma occurs in one’s nervous system and not in the actual traumatic event. In other words, each individual’s nervous system responds differently to his or her environment. Everyone has a different threshold of stress tolerance and that threshold is set by genetics, experience, and past traumas. Some people may have severe responses to certain events while others may exhibit a minor reaction to that same event. Each person’s stress threshold varies.

It’s important that we understand how deeply trauma impacts us when it occurs, so that we can understand its physical, generational, and emotional effects. Too many people minimize highly negative or stressful events that have happened to them. True, not everything warrants professional help or alarm, but some things do because they can trigger a negative impact for years to come. When it occurs, trauma has three main effects. Together, they explain why trauma influences our emotions and responses so negatively.

First, trauma literally changes the brain. It changes how the brain works, and if the trauma is prolonged (as in the cases of children who were sexually or physically abused repeatedly by a perpetrator), it can actually physically injure the brain (Howard & Crandall, 2007).

When something stressful occurs, our brain essentially gives an alert that we are in danger. If the trauma never lets up, or it is unpredictable when it will occur again, then our brain can get stuck in alert mode. While the brain is in alert mode and using high amounts of energy and stress hormones, our body depletes its resources and usually post-traumatic stress disorder develops (Howard & Crandall, 2007).

Trauma can cause the brain to go into alert mode so extensively that it causes damage to the brain cells. Our brains are not designed to be exposed to so many stress hormones at one time. When stress hormones are repeatedly released in high doses, our brain reacts and wears itself out. As a result, our memories and emotions become damaged. Children are especially vulnerable to trauma because their brains are still developing. In cases of prolonged trauma in childhood, an integrated personality is often not formed (Howard & Crandall, 2007).

Trauma can also impair brain function by training our brains to react to things that are not threatening. For example, if you get attacked by a dog, your brain will remember how it let you down by not warning you about the dog in time. To correct that problem, the brain becomes hyper-vigilant to do a better job. Each time you see a dog in the future, your brain will work overtime to give you warning. You might see a dog in the distance approaching you. As soon as you recognize that it’s a dog, your brain will send signals to the rest of your body to be on alert by increasing your breathing, dilating your eyes, and tightening the muscles in your legs so that you’re prepared to move if needed.

Your brain is acting as it should to keep danger at bay. However, this is unhelpful if the dog approaching you is not a threat. Maybe it’s just a small poodle—and now you look like a major wimp and have activated your stress response cycle for no reason. You are getting warning signs of danger when there is no actual present danger. Trauma can create a faulty template for your brain, and it can be difficult to override that template.

Secondly, trauma passes itself down through generations. Many who have experienced abuse or trauma as a child are often determined to raise their children better and shield them from danger. That is a noble and great goal. However, it’s also a bit naïve if you don’t get help from others to treat your own trauma first.

Figuring out trauma on your own is very difficult. Recent research has shown that trauma effects can actually be passed down to our children biologically. The short is this: trauma messes up the production of our short RNA molecules. When that happens, our normal cellular processes get messed up too, and when this occurs, our emotions and reactions do not necessarily work as they should. Essentially, these abnormal short RNA molecules can then be transmitted to our offspring for up to three generations! If you’d like an additional, perhaps more sophisticated and scientific, explanation of this dynamic, visit here (ETH Zurich, 2014).

Furthermore, trauma survivors can unknowingly pass down social effects of their trauma to their children. Typically those who have experienced something traumatic can begin to operate from a belief that the world is unsafe. This belief can easily be transmitted to children through how a parent interacts with his or her child—overprotection, coddling, catastrophizing, or not allowing the child to individuate from the parent. Such behaviors from a parent can transmit the belief of “the world is unsafe” to a child, even if the child has not experienced something traumatic firsthand. Soon the child’s brain may begin interacting with the world more fearfully and with more hyper vigilance than is good or necessary (Castelloe, 2012)

Finally, trauma impairs interpersonal relationships. As already noted, trauma usually makes people interact with the world more fearfully because of damaged brain areas. When it comes to relationships, those who have experienced trauma often are distrustful of others and can struggle to express emotional needs for fear of being hurt.

Trauma expert Kim Shilson explains: “Abused as children, adults who lack a secure attachment may become avoidant of establishing relationships, or overly dependent on others to meet their needs.  In addition, they may turn to unhealthy coping strategies such as substance abuse, self-injurious behavior, or eating disorders in efforts to manage their distress. Diagnoses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder (among others) are often seen among trauma survivors,” (The Trauma and Mental Health Report, 2012).

Experiencing trauma is serious. Yes, sometimes you can see some growth and healing on your own without anyone’s help. But often, the symptoms the trauma leaves with someone last a long time and can deeply impair one’s functioning and finances.

But here’s the good news: much research and study has been done on effective treatment strategies for trauma. In my therapeutic work, I personally use two modalities to treat trauma:  Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Somatic Experiencing. EMDR has been highly recommended by the American Psychiatric Association, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a preferred treatment for trauma.

Somatic Experiencing helps alleviate the physical symptoms that occur as a result of trauma. I find that employing both methods has heeded great results with my clients in alleviating physical and psychological symptoms.

If you are a trauma survivor, you can get help for your negative symptoms. Solid research has shown that professional trauma therapy can reverse the effects of trauma and help you engage life more optimally. Also by investing in professional therapy, you are investing in a service that will help you save money that could possibly be lost in the future due to lessened productivity, medical concerns, or harmful effects that can be passed onto your family. Feel free to shoot me an email if you would like to learn more or have questions. I would love to hear your story.

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Castelloe, M. (2012). How trauma is carried across generations. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-me-in-we/201205/how-trauma-is-carried-across-generations.

ETH Zurich. (2014). Hereditary trauma: Inheritance of traumas and how they may be mediated. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/04/140413135953.htm

Howard, S. & Crandall, M. (2007). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: What happens in the brain? Washington Academy of Sciences. Retrieved from http://www.washacadsci.org/Journal/Journalarticles/V.93-3-Post%20Traumatic%20Stress%20Disorder.%20Sethanne%20Howard%20and%20Mark%20Crandalll.pdf

The Trauma and Mental Health Report. (2012). Retrieved from http://trauma.blog.yorku.ca/2012/09/psychological-trauma-and-the-brain-interview-with-kim-shilson.

When the Boogeyman Actually Lives in Your Bed

In the past few months, two beloved television dads have been accused of rape and molestation against children and young women.

Stephen Collins, who played a minister and father of five on the show Seventh Heaven, was investigated for child molestation after a tape was released of him admitting that he exposed himself to underage girls several years prior (Oldenburg, 2014).

A few short weeks after the release of this tape, comedian Hannibal Burress reminded his Philadelphia audience during a show of the multiple rape allegations against the iconic comedian Bill Cosby. Burress’ standup routine went viral, causing the decade-long rape accusations to be reexamined and Cosby himself to be reinvestigated (Giles & Jones, 2015).

The investigations of these two adored television dads left many (myself included) angry, confused, and grasping for some shred of evidence to debunk these allegations and uphold the squeaky-clean image that both men hold in pop culture and our childhoods.

However, no such evidence has been indicated yet to clear their names, and the general public is left with the awkward realization that these TV dads are not who we thought they were.

The discomfort, confusion, and awkwardness that I share with the rest of America who grew up watching and loving these men is just a small microcosm of the confusing emotions that children who are mistreated feel everyday when they are hurt and abused by someone they trust, know, and love. It’s tempting to discredit stories like those of the 24 women who have accused Cosby of rape so far. It is inviting to believe that those who hurt children and other vulnerable people are easy to recognize based on their socioeconomic status and appearance. But the facts tell a different story.

The truth is that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys will be sexually abused during their childhood in the United States. Of those who are abused, 90% know their abuser and 68% are abused by someone in their family. Being a sexual perpetrator does not lend itself to a certain type of person, relationship, appearance, or temperament.

The tendency to discredit a victim’s story when it clashes with our preconceived opinions of a person creates a difficult narrative for our culture. It creates the idea that perpetrators look a certain way. Those who do not fit the prototype we have for sexual perpetrators are then easily believed and forgiven if allegations arise against them. This is an aspect of rape culture that I am personally tired of.

This is why I found Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s joke about Bill Cosby at the Golden Globes so refreshing:

Yes, making a joke about rape and sexual violence is almost always in poor taste. However, I suspect Fey and Poehler were doing something more profound. Cosby has been able to silence and dismiss his victims for so long because of his squeaky-clean image. He has been known to make jokes about his accusers in his shows to point out how ludicrous it is that he, Bill Cosby, the guy who loves children, played a TV dad, and was a spokesperson for JELLO, could be capable of raping someone. His audiences almost always laugh when he makes such jokes denouncing his victims.

What Fey and Poehler attempted to do was debunk his resilient, wholesome image by incorporating the rape joke into his famous JELLO pudding one-liners. Now when people hear Cosby’s infamous JELLO commercials, they will most likely also hear Fey and Poehler’s rape bit. They have allowed others to experience the dissonance of Cosby’s dualism with their very public joke. My suspicion is that their joke was an attempt to attack and dismantle an aspect of rape culture that has protected Bill Cosby for a long time.

The truth is, people who look good are capable of doing bad things. Sure, there is a chance that Cosby and Collins are innocent of the allegations they are facing (though the evidence seems to be quickly stacking against them). However, abruptly dismissing someone’s story of abuse because the perpetrator does not fit our prototype is harmful, unfair, and contributes to a culture that devalues and silences victims.

Remember: being victimized is not a choice for the victim. And it certainly is not a choice for an innocent child. If you suspect someone is being abused, act and respond. There is support and help.

If you are unsure of where to start, contact me. I would be happy to assist and steer you in the right direction. Please do not be a contributor to rape culture. Victims need voices that others will believe.

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Giles, M. & Jones, N. (2015). A timeline of the abuse charges against Bill Cosby. Vulture. Retrieved from http://www.vulture.com/2014/09/timeline-of-the-abuse-charges-against-cosby.html.

Oldenburg, A. (2014). Fallout continues for ‘7th Heaven’ star Stephen Collins. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/people/2014/10/07/stephen-collins-child-molestation-tmz-7th-heaven/16846839.

Three Ways to Make Your Dysfunctional Relationships Healthy

I say it all the time. Relationships are the worst and best things in our lives. Your happiest and worst memories alike probably involve a relationship of some sort. Maybe your relationship with your family members makes you cherish the holidays, or you avoid going home for them. Perhaps you’re on every dating site imaginable, or maybe you turn down anyone that asks you out. Relationships cause us to behave in certain ways. And, whether you are aware of it or not, there are specific reasons why you choose to act the way you do with others.

People matter. And our relationships with the people in our lives affect us deeply.

Be honest: have you ever sabotaged a relationship or friendship that was going well because you were afraid of getting hurt? Have you desperately wanted to be connected to someone so badly that you clung on for dear life and essentially drove the person away and got your number blocked? It’s okay if you have. In middle school that was just the norm; you just need to update your methods if this is still your norm as an adult.

The truth is that one of the most consistent findings in the research on happiness tells us that those who achieve the most happiness have close interpersonal relationships (Grohol, 2010). We cannot get away from it. It’s in the research.

This may be bad news to some who feel like their relationship game is lacking. Others might already know how important interpersonal connection is and desire and seek close relationships. Or maybe intimacy just seems too complicated to figure out and most of your relationships end up in flames. When it comes to happiness in our relationships, we are all somewhere on the spectrum between satisfied and dissatisfied. Luckily, how we connect to others has been studied for years and we have quite a bit data to help us achieve more satisfaction in this area. If you want a comprehensive look at why we desire to attach to others, look here. For the purpose of this post, however, I want to look at how we attach as adults and how we can fix the dysfunctions of our current ways of relating. Let’s first begin by looking at the three primary ways people connect:

The Clinger (Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment).
The name says it all. This person is incredibly clingy. You stress out when a new friend or date does not return your text immediately.  You experience perpetual fear about your existing loved ones leaving you. This might manifest itself in some stalkerish behavior. Or maybe you are savvy enough to keep your behaviors in check, but internally you’re a ball of anxiety and fear. Underlying beliefs for those who experience relationships in this way include:

·      I am unworthy of love.
·      I cannot get the love I want or need.
·      I’m not good enough or interesting enough to keep others around.
·      Others will most likely abandon me when they get tired of me.

Those who have this relationship style have a paramount fear of rejection. This prevents them from being honest with their loved ones for fear of hurting them and causing them to leave. As a result, this person desperately attempts to please people and depends heavily on others instead of himself or herself (Sibcy & Clinton, 2006).

The Hardened Heart (Avoidant Attachment).
Just think Ebenezer Scrooge. He is the quintessential example of this attachment style. Beliefs that fuel this person include:

·      I am worthy of love based on my successes and accomplishments.
·      People will eventually hurt me, so I must keep them at arms length.
·      Others are unwilling and incapable of loving me.
·      I must rely on myself alone.

This person might relate to this classic White Snake song:

These folks are difficult to get close to. They often want to be pursued relentlessly and need to feel they have the upper hand in their relationships. Often they leave the person they are in a relationship with feeling unimportant and unloved (Sibcy & Clinton, 2006).

The Secure Person (Secure Attachment).
This is the person we all want to be. She is confident. She knows what she has to offer and what her limitations are. This is the guy who is not afraid of emotions—his or anyone else’s. He knows when to reach out for help and isn’t riddled with fear about others getting mad and leaving him. Overall, this person believes relationships can be safe and understands that forgiveness and reconciliation can follow disappointment and conflict. Usually these people have lots of friends and are those you want to be friends with. They seem to be surrounded by love and connection (Sibcy & Clinton, 2006).

Here is the good news: you can become this person. Truly. Research has proven it (Roisman, Padron, Sroufe, & Egeland, 2002). No matter how much disappointment others have caused you, you can learn a new way of relating.  Here are three things to implement now to practice moving toward secure attachment if you find your relationships plagued by dysfunction and disappointment:

Identify what causes you the most shame. People typically move away from others because they don’t want to be hurt or embarrassed. Rejection bruises our egos. What is it that causes you to feel shameful about yourself? Is it a fear of others finding out you don’t understand or know something? Are you afraid of someone learning something about you that you don’t want to be known? One man described his personal fear like this during one of our sessions:

I spent my entire adolescence trying to hide the fact that I was attracted to other men. I desperately didn’t want anyone to know I was gay. So I wouldn’t let other people get too close so I could attempt to control how they perceived me. Now I’m realizing I haven’t let anyone in and have no close relationships because I still feel shame about my sexuality and who I am. And I worry, is it too late to figure out how to fix this?

As in the case of this man, maybe there is something that you believe is fundamentally flawed about yourself. Maybe you have spent so much energy and effort trying to hide something about yourself because you believe it’s shameful or wrong. Let me tell you, friend, you can get relief. Vulnerability makes people more beautiful! To improve your relationships, you must identify what you are most embarrassed or ashamed about so you can discern how to move forward in acceptance and stronger connections.

Avoid games. People are excellent game-players. Especially when it comes to relationships. Here’s the deal: you have to learn to stop. We are all too old and tired for that shit. Eliminate behaviors like the cold shoulder, minimizing your feelings, getting defensive, avoiding others who have hurt you, or intentionally not returning a call because you want to appear “cool.”

These behaviors just make you look like an ass and drive people away. Learn how to interact like a mature adult.

If someone’s behavior bothers you, kindly talk about it with him or her. Be emotionally honest about how their actions affected you. You must be honest about your feelings in order to truly connect with another person.

Watch what others do. Maybe you feel completely lost as to how to interact with others. That’s when you need to watch what the people in your life do. Discern those who are securely attached and model your behaviors after them. We all need people to practice with and learn from. Who in your life seems to have the strongest relationships? Watch how they interact with their significant others and friends. Maybe, if you’re really brave, you can take them out to coffee and ask specific questions. I know that’s a vulnerable thing, but wouldn’t it be worth it if it helped you become happier and have stronger relationships?

Changing your attachment style is difficult because there are valid reasons why you do the things you do. People have hurt us and we want to self-protect. We want to feel valuable and loved so we seek out the affections of others. Learning how to relate is difficult, so it’s easier to rely on the old games we learned in middle school. These are all valid and sensible reasons. But just because they are valid does not mean they are sustainable.

Finally, let’s learn to be patient with each other as we all figure it out. Relationships are one of the trickiest things we must navigate, and we will screw them up from time to time. Each person has good reasons why they relate the way they do. Everyone has a different attachment style. That style is set by personality, temperament, life experiences, and trauma. Remember to extend empathy and understanding to those with a different attachment style than you. Or, in the words of Plato: "Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle."

And to answer the question my client posed above: is it too late to fix this?

No. It is absolutely not too late.

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Clinton, T. & Sibcy, G. (2006). Why you do the things you do: The secret to healthy relationships. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Grohol, J. (2010). Five reliable findings from happiness research. Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/04/10/5-reliable-findings-from-happiness-research.

Roisman, G. L., Padron, E., Sroufe, L. A., & Egeland, B. (2002). Earned-secure attachment status in retrospect and prospect. Child Development(73) 4. 1204-19.

Why New Year's Resolutions Don't Work and a Better Alternative

Does anyone really keep their New Year’s resolutions? I’m sure there’s that one person you know who has kept theirs perfectly and probably makes you feel crummy about caving in on yours one week in.

Here’s the deal: classic New Year’s resolutions are the worst. Not just because I say so, but also because they promote a premise for behavior change that sets you up for failure. Of course the idea of starting a new habit or goal alongside the New Year is a nice thought. But few people succeed at this, and here’s why:

New Year’s resolutions are often unrealistic. Trying to combat several years of a bad habit out of the blue when January 1st rolls around is incompatible with the brain. Sure, it is possible to quit or start things cold turkey, but it’s difficult. The brain adjusts to patterns of behavior and they can be hard to change without some realistic goals, pre-planning, and help. Attempting a goal with no plan is a recipe for failure.

Also, resolutions are usually too vague. Many times I hear resolutions that sound something like “I’m going to be happier this year, “ or “I’m going to be a better parent.” Good for you! These are good goals. But what are you going to do to actually see that come to fruition? Give yourself specificity.

Here’s the bottom line: without a plan, you can’t achieve a goal, and without a goal, you can’t achieve a plan. If you want a resolution to stick, do more than just get an idea. Start with your idea, then create a specific goal, and finally make a plan. This is the primary reason New Year’s resolutions fail. They rarely do more than someone conjuring up a vague idea about something they would like to change.

But this upcoming year, I want to offer you more than a simplistic way of crafting the perfect New Year’s resolution. Instead, I want to give you some ideas on how you can find a more effective way to approach your goal and be more successful at achieving greater happiness and contentment.

First, anticipate and dream. Solid research has found across multiple studies that there is greater joy in anticipation than the actual event. For example, many people experience higher levels of happiness when they are planning and anticipating a vacation than they actually do on the vacation itself (Rosenbloom, 2014). Professor Dunn from the University of British Columbia and a happiness researcher notes that building up and savoring the anticipation process by researching your adventure suggests that you assume your vacation will be amazing and causes you to look forward to it. There is joy in the planning process. “We’re less likely to be bothered by [the things that go wrong on our trip] if we build up our expectations ahead of time,” Professor Dunn said. “So go ahead and assume it’s going to be wonderful” (Rosenbloom, 2014).

This year allow yourself to anticipate what you want to change or happen. Maybe it’s a dream trip. Maybe it’s a healthier lifestyle. Maybe it’s being a better parent. But before you can put an effective plan together, you must anticipate and visualize the end result or experience.

When we anticipate, we are allowing ourselves to dream, and dreaming is good for the spirit. When we dream, we are acknowledging something we desire, something that is important to us, and something that we find valuable. Too many people don’t dream enough. I mean really dream.

A dear friend of mine and I recently had a dream to move to New York City to pursue our own individual goals. My goal was to pursue a doctorate degree in psychology along with embracing the fullness and culture of the city. It might seem like a far-fetched dream to some, but we took it seriously. We scheduled a “dreaming weekend” where we went to Breckinridge and spent the weekend dreaming and putting an action plan together to see if we could make our New York dream actualize. We are still in the dreaming and planning process, and I look forward to letting you know how it turns out! But I can tell you this: I experienced so much joy during that dreaming process (and I still do). It opened me up to anticipate something I truly desire and want. And dreaming can have the same effect on you. 

Secondly, pursue and plan. Dreaming and anticipating do little good if you don’t actively pursue a plan. This part is attractive to many because there is an element of control here. However, research on happiness has uncovered an unfortunate truth: there is a genetic link to happiness. That is, some people are capable of feeling happier than others by nature. But, there is a positive finding in this as well. That same research discovered that we have control over about fifty-percent of our happiness level despite our genetics (Nauert, 2008). So even though you might have a genetic predisposition to feel gloomy and a bit more unhappy from time to time, there is something you can do to improve your situation—you have fifty-percent of the control. So take that, genetics.

One of those things you can do is actively pursue the goals and dreams you have for yourself. Put together a plan. What do you need to be a better parent this year? Is it some stress management work? Is it more free time pursuing things you enjoy? Where do you feel yourself lacking that is contributing to the problem? Be willing to look at yourself openly. If you can’t see what needs to change, or are defensive about your shortcomings, then your situation is unlikely to improve. Put together an active plan to get there and pursue what it is that you desire. Make the planning process fun. Do something out of the ordinary. Set aside a night during the week to dream and put together your plan. Go check into a hotel for a weekend. Make it special. You have control here. And isn’t that what we all really want on occasion—control over our lives and actions?

Finally, involve others in your dreams and goals. One interesting finding in the research on anticipation and happiness found that there is a difference between what we anticipate and the effect it has on our happiness. For example, there is increased happiness when we anticipate an experience like a vacation, concert, or event. When we anticipate a purchase such as a new laptop or car, the anticipation can often lead to impatience. Studies found that anticipating an experience creates more happiness and less impatience (Herbert, 2014). Interesting, right? We can speculate as to what causes this difference, but I think I know.

Experiences usually involve others which creates stronger and often more positive memories about which we can later relish and reminisce. Relationships matter and are one of the strongest indicators of one’s personal happiness (Grohol, 2010). So when you want to dream or anticipate something, include others in your plan. Take that class with a friend. Have someone join you for your workout plan. Not only will you most likely stick with it longer, you’ll also be happier during the process because you’re sharing the experience with someone you care about.

This year, don’t give in to the simplistic and cliché resolutions. Instead, do something that creates substantial change and happiness. Dream this year. Dream really big. Dream, and then anticipate your dream while you pursue a realistic plan that includes others you love. That is a recipe for a resolution that can stick and be more fulfilling. Then you can be that friend who seems to uphold his or her resolutions perfectly.

Happy New Year.

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 Grohol, J. (2010). Five reliable findings from happiness research. Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/04/10/5-reliable-findings-from-happiness-research.

Herbert, W. (2014). Anticipation: The psychology of waiting in line. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wray-herbert/anticipation-the-psycholo_b_5588654.html.

Nauert, R. (2008). Genetic link to happiness. Psych Central. Retrieved from http://psychcentral.com/news/2008/03/05/genetic-link-to-happiness/2003.html.

Rosenbloom, S. (2014). What a great trip! And I’m not even there yet. The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/travel/what-a-great-trip-and-im-not-even-there-yet.html?_r=0.

Men Who Never Grow Up and Four Ways To Interact With Them More Effectively

Peter Pan: “Would you send me to school?”

Mrs. Darling: “Yes.”

Peter Pan: “And then to an office?”

 Mrs. Darling: “I suppose so.”

 Peter Pan: “Soon I should be a man?”

Mrs. Darling: “Very soon.”

Peter Pan: I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things! No one is going to catch me, lady, and make me a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun!”

We all know the type. You may even run out of fingers counting the men in your life who fit the criteria. They are the men who refuse to grow up. They can be hopelessly irresponsible, emotionally stunted and uncomfortable with negative emotions. Sometimes they can even be rude, narcissistic, and chauvinistic.

You might be dating one. You might be married to one. Or maybe you just work with one and cannot figure out how to convince them to embrace their adulthood. They are the men in all of our lives who refuse to grow up. Some psychologists identify these men as suffering from Peter Pan Syndrome (Kiley, 1983).

Named after the lovable fairy tale character, Peter Pan was a young boy who wanted to stay young and childlike forever. He reminds us all of everlasting youth, fun spiritedness, and the importance of play. Although these are important characteristics to have in our lives, they cannot be the only characteristics we adopt and prioritize if we want to experience fulfillment and contentedness.

Perhaps you have such a man in your life. You may even be in love with him. But no matter how much affinity you feel for the guy, his inability to embrace adulthood leaves you constantly frustrated and wondering over and over if being in relationship with him is sustainable.

Often times these men have a host of frustrating behaviors that make it difficult to be close to them, be it romantically or platonically:

·      perpetual irresponsibility (refusal to choose a realistic career path or to spend money wisely),

·      high anxiety (constant preoccupation with the future or the past which sabotages their ability to be present),

·      loneliness (although often this is not outwardly shown or expressed),

·      sex role conflicts (e.g. a strong desire to be the “man” in a relationship or a demand to be “doted on” or “taken care of” by his partner),

·      narcissism and chauvinism (a refusal to apologize for mistakes or pouting behavior when they do not get their way) (Kiley, 1983).

This list is not exhaustive but it gives us a brief picture of the issues contributing to these men’s inability to maturely embrace adulthood.

So what should you do if you find yourself in relationship with a man like this?

The good news is that this isn’t an irreversible condition. But you do need to know your limits. Often those who are drawn to and attracted to these types of men can have a desire to “take care of” or “parent” them. They enjoy being needed and gain satisfaction from “rescuing” these men from their immaturity or self-pity. However, if you find yourself feeling increased resentment or frustration, here are a few strategies to try:

  1. Be specific and factual when confronting upsetting behavior: Often these men do not know how to handle negative emotions themselves—much less anyone else’s. Remember to be factual and not emotional. High emotional expression is often a trigger for these men and can make them shut down quickly. A good formula to follow when addressing an upsetting behavior is to:
    • Factually state what happened. (e.g. You came home two hours later than you told me you would last night.)
    • Express what you feel and why you feel this way. (e.g. I feel pretty hurt by that because it feels like you do not respect my time when you do not show up when you say you will.)
    • Explain what you would like to see in the future (e.g. In the future, please call me if you are going to be later than you promised. 
  2. Reflect the issue under the surface: Men who refuse to grow up often externalize problems and refuse to connect them to their current emotional state. Refusing to grow in self-awareness alongside your Peter Pan can be tempting, but it isn’t healthy. After hearing him complain about his boss and how he is a victim to some force outside of him, use a simple reflective statement that attacks the underlying issue: “It sounds like you’re really scared about losing your job because your boss seems to misunderstand your intentions. It’s okay for a guy like you to be scared sometimes.”
  3. Practice active ignoring: In other words, ignore this guy when what he is saying is loaded with narcissism, chauvinistic undertones, or irresponsibility. Change the direction of the conversation. Sometimes behaviors that are ignored become extinguished (but not always, unfortunately).
  4. Express opinions without sounding apologetic: Sometimes these men can make us feel wrong or badly about our feelings or opinions. It is crucial to understand that this is simply a projection of their own inability to fully understand or accept their own feelings of inferiority. Refuse to apologize for how a situation made you feel. You can hear him out, but that does not mean your feelings are invalid. Learn to use assertive language that isn’t riddled with self-doubt (e.g. That was frustrating when you forgot my birthday. It hurt my feelings because I felt unimportant to you, and I would like for us to find a time to talk about that.)

Remember: if you are in relationship with a Peter Pan, then you must make a hard decision if he fails to respond to you in a different way. Know when you need to walk away, or encourage relationship therapy and look at all of the options you have to engage him.

Above all, remember that his growth and maturity is not your responsibility. Know your limits and how far you are willing to go. If you are interested in learning more about these men, the causes of such behavior, and more specific interventions to implement, I highly suggest Dr. Dan Kiley’s book, The Peter Pan Syndrome. 

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Kiley, D. (1983). The Peter Pan syndrome. New York, NY: Avon Books.

The Problem of Evil and 5 Ways You Can Build Resilience to It (Images NSFW)

As Halloween approaches, the decorations and products come out, encouraging us to celebrate all things frightening and ghoulish. It’s a time to contemplate the demonic and scary. We flock to the movie theaters to watch tales of serial killers, demonic possessions, and other eerie tales of things haunted and possessed. We dress up as witches and monsters, and trek our kids door to door in horrifying costumes so they can hit up strangers for candy. It’s really a weird holiday when you think about it.

This Halloween season has sparked some thoughts in me about our fascination with evil. Even when I tune in to the news, I’m confronted with all kinds of evil acts that are happening around the world—particularly the recent murders and attacks by the ISIS terrorist group. How can some people treat other humans so brutally and savagely, and sometimes even seem to relish it?

Such evil should not surprise someone like myself. After all, I specialize in working with trauma survivors. My clients have experienced some of the darkest atrocities we can imagine—sexual and physical abuse, rape, school shootings, and neglect—just to name a few. But I am still not accustomed to evil. It upsets me, and if I’m being honest, it even scares me.

Evil is a complex idea, and for many of us it can be difficult to understand. In studying evil, we can learn much about the human experience and the depth of human capacity for both evil and kindness. An innovative psychologist from the 1970’s, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, revealed facets of evil in a famous experiment that he conducted—these findings are still applicable and often referenced today. Zimbardo also discovered something worth remembering: evil is not as black and white as it may appear to be. Let’s first look at the bad news about evil and what psychology can teach us about it.

The Bad News About Evil: It Lives in All of Us

In 1971, Stanford professor and psychologist, Dr. Phillip Zimbardo (2008), conducted one of the most famous experiments on the subject of evil (although he didn’t know he was studying evil at the time). Zimbardo wanted to understand the power of inherent personality traits on abusive tendencies in the prison system. He set up a simulated prison where he randomly assigned young men to either be prisoners or prison guards. Those selected to be prisoners underwent fake arrests at their homes and were forced to wear prison jumpsuits. The guards wore badges, prison guard uniforms, and sunglasses.

During the simulation, Zimbardo witnessed the guards exhibit increasingly abusive behavior toward the prisoners. Each day the abuse got worse—from calling the prisoners dehumanizing names to stripping them down and humiliating them sexually. These guards were regular men from the community that simply volunteered to be a part of this experiment. They had no prior criminal behavior and were considered regular men who worked regular jobs.

In total, five of the prisoners had complete emotional breakdowns as a result of the abuse. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks, but the guards’ behavior became so abusive that Zimbardo shut down the experiment after only six days.

Zimbardo unraveled something very dark and unsettling about human nature when he completed his evaluation of his experiment: humans have an infinite capacity to behave evilly (Zimbardo, 2008).

This finding has been discovered in other experiments and real-life situations. In 2004, it was discovered that American soldiers were abusing Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. The abuse was horrific and in some of the pictures you can see below, you find American soldiers laughing and grinning while Iraqi detainees suffer and undergo sadistic torture at the American soldiers’ hands.

When these crimes were discovered, American intelligence turned to psychology and Zimbardo’s famous prison experiment to understand how good soldiers with no prior abusive history could be guilty of such atrocious acts. When Zimbardo served as an expert witness in the trial, he reported that it was not “bad apples” that committed these crimes. Instead it was a “bad barrel.” That is, people are typically good, but when they are put in a bad situation, evil can take over and often prevail. In short, everyone has the capacity to commit evil acts when the situation encourages it.

The Good News About Evil: You Can Choose Not to Listen

It’s a heavy reality to understand that we are all capable of evil. And, yes, it is true that we all are—every single person. However, Zimbardo (2008) also discovered something a bit more hopeful: the same situation that can encourage someone to behave cruelly can also inspire kindness and heroism.

When the crimes were taking place at Abu Ghraib, one young private, Joe Darby, witnessed the abuse and chose heroism. He blew the whistle, which launched an investigation and put a stop to the torture. He made an intentional decision to act against the evil instead of with it. The good news is that we each have the capacity to make such a decision.

When Zimbardo conducted his Stanford Prison Experiment, he himself became desensitized to the wicked behavior of the guards on the prisoners. He watched with utter fascination as the behavior escalated and became more abusive with each passing day. It wasn’t until his girlfriend, Christina Maslach, came to visit him and saw some of the behavior that Zimbardo changed his perspective. Maslach was horrified at what she saw and demanded he stop the experiment. Zimbardo ultimately succumbed to her wishes and called off the study.

In both cases, notice that the same situation inspired two different actions: evil or heroism. Although evil can be a powerful force in our lives, it is possible to choose heroism. But in order to do that, we must regularly make small, intentional choices to build our resilience to evil and our sensitivity to goodness. To do that, consider these five things:

·      Practice seeing human faces. We are busy people and can often see others as a means to an end—the checkout grocer, the bank teller, or the server in your favorite restaurant. Practice engaging those that help you each day. Make eye contact. Smile. Use their first name while interacting. They are people with feelings, hopes, and dreams. Even when they are unpleasant people themselves, you have the capacity and choice to recognize and respect their humanity.

·      Practice gratitude. Research shows that practicing gratitude has been linked with better health, sounder sleep, and treating others more kindly. A new study has also found that practicing gratitude decreases the likelihood that a person will act out aggressively when provoked (Tierney, 2011). Find time throughout your day to mentally tell yourself what you are grateful for, and then tell others about it.

·      Be aware of the situation. Learn what kinds of situations make you act more selfishly. My first job out of graduate school was working for a nonprofit that helped victims of crime. The work the nonprofit did was excellent for the community. However, the work environment was very hostile and encouraged people to treat each other unkindly. I recognized this dynamic and the toll it was taking on my compassion and soon resigned. Know those situations in your life and avoid them when possible.

·      Look for the helpers. It is easy to become disheartened when faced with a tragedy on the news. Events like school shootings, terrorist attacks, and atrocious crimes against others can sometimes take up our entire newsfeed. However, those same crimes also inspire others to act kindly. Look for those people. When watching coverage of a school shooting, point out to yourself and your children all those that are coming out to help by donating blood, giving financially, or offering shoulders to cry on to those impacted. There are always helpers in times of tragedy. Look for those people and focus on their actions.

·      Reframe your definition of a hero. We need to promote heroism. But before we do, we need to reframe what makes someone a hero. We’ve been trained to believe that heroes have something inherently heroic about them—a superpower, incredible strength, or high intelligence. Most heroes (like Darby and Maslach) are everyday people. They are people who see something wrong and act to fix it. They are teachers who work to protect kids from bullies. They are businessmen who strive to treat and pay their employees fairly and honestly in a struggling economy. They are nonprofit workers who help humanity by writing grants or offering services at low fees. These are heroes. Learn to reframe your definition of a hero and educate your children.

Remember what Zimbardo taught us through his famous experiment: we have an infinite capacity to either act with extreme evil or extreme heroism depending on the situation. Work to be a compassionate person by practicing these steps to make yourself more resilient. Let history be a teacher to us as we struggle with the impact of world events that make us heavy-hearted and afraid. Or just consider the words of one of my favorite mentors and teachers in the field of psychology, Carl Rogers: “When I look at the world, I am pessimistic, but when I look at people, I am optimistic.”

You, my friend, are capable of so much good. Now go do something with it.

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Tierney, J. (2011). A serving of gratitude may save the day. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/science/a-serving-of-gratitude-brings-healthy-dividends.html?_r=0.

Zimbardo, P. (2008). The Lucifer effect. New York, NY: Random House Publishing.


Three Problems With Boundaries

I worked for a student organization several years ago in which we would teach college students some of the basic principles of mental health. One of the topics we often talked about was personal boundaries.

Everyone knows what boundaries are, or at least is familiar with the word. But what are they really?  Simply put, boundaries are personal limits and guidelines that one identifies to separate oneself from others. They are most commonly used in our closest relationships, including our family members and friends.  People often recognize the need to implement boundaries when they feel their voice is not being heard or when someone is forcing decisions onto them. When we fail to implement boundaries, we can feel controlled, powerless, and resentful.

Boundaries are important because they inform us of where we end and another person begins. However, many people have difficulty implementing boundaries at first, often due to several reasons:

·      They have a tendency to put others’ needs before their own.

·      They do not know themselves well enough to enforce personal boundaries.

·      They don’t feel they have the right to enforce a personal boundary.

·      They are afraid boundaries will jeopardize their relationships.

·      They do not know what healthy boundaries look like (Lancer, n.d.).

As difficult as it can be to create proper boundaries in our relationships and lives, healthy boundaries are necessary for true connection to occur.  Without them, our lives become chaotic and unmanageable.

Although boundaries are good, I have observed their implementation to go horribly wrong at times. Whenever I observed boundaries being taught to college students for the first time, I would often see a light bulb come on for them. These students were beginning to realize they could take control of their lives and not let their other relationships dictate how they operate. It’s a very empowering feeling the first time you realize you have the right and power to set your own emotional and physical limits.

At times, it was interesting to watch these young students begin implementing boundaries for the first time with their peers. Like any new skill, we can go a bit overboard when learning how to manage it. While watching these students, I observed them begin to assert boundaries over everything.

“No, I can’t make that appointment. I want to do something else instead.”

 “No, I don’t want to have a difficult conversation with you about how I hurt your feelings. It’s my decision if I want to have a conversation like that. And, I don’t want to.”

“Sorry, I can’t help you out with that event even though you’re overwhelmed and swamped. I have other things I would prefer to do.”

 Sometimes it was painful to watch and listen as I observed many of these students apply their boundaries with peers and co-workers in our organization for the first time. I was happy they were learning how to be assertive, but I was also troubled at some of the issues I saw arising as a result of expressing such firmness. Many people fail to outgrow such self-centered ways of communicating and expressing personal limits. I encounter such people in my professional and personal life regularly, and you may as well. They really make life a drag.

Boundaries are implemented in relationships to foster stronger connection, intimacy, and growth.  However, if boundaries are incorrectly defined, they can sabotage those very things! During my time as a therapist, I have seen the definition of what is considered “healthy” boundaries change from personal limits to foster more meaningful connection and a greater sense of control over one’s life to a more self-absorbed definition.

When boundaries are implemented correctly, they usually sound something like this:

I really wish I could help you with that, but my plate is already full. Feel free to ask next time.

Or, they can sound like this:

I appreciate you asking about my marriage. However, my marital conflict is something my partner and I are working through together, and I am only sharing our progress with a few close friends.

In both of these cases, the boundaries being asserted are being implemented to foster more meaningful connections. In the first example, if the person had taken on the new project, he or she would most likely not have time to invest adequately into their other personal relationships due to being overscheduled. In the second example, the person was setting a clear limit for the information he or she was willing to share in that particular relationship. This person respectfully set a limit for what he or she felt comfortable sharing about his or her marriage. In both cases, such assertion was intended to foster a more meaningful connection and a healthier relationship.

However, many times I hear incorrectly-defined boundaries being asserted that end up reeking of self-absorption and entitlement. They often sound something like this:

No, I can’t help you with that project. I need my me time, otherwise I get cranky. I don’t like it when I don’t have free time to do things I really want to do.

Or, another example of an incorrectly defined boundary being asserted can sound like this:

I would appreciate it if you don’t ask me about my marriage or other parts of my personal life. That’s none of your business. I value my privacy and don’t like to talk about such things.

Do you see the different motivations between the two versions?  The first example is one built out of a desire to connect meaningfully with other people in a healthy way.  The second example is fostered out of fear and entitlement.

This shift in definitions has opened my eyes to how boundaries can go terribly wrong when their intent and purpose is misunderstood. Here are three problems I have identified that boundaries create when they are incorrectly defined:

1.     Incorrectly defined boundaries prevent meaningful community.

When we adopt the second version of boundaries that is fostered from self-centeredness and fear, we sabotage our ability to connect with those around us in a meaningful way by deeming things private that probably don’t need to be private. By doing so, we wall ourselves off and unintentionally reject the ability to connect with the safe people around us.

We create unnecessary “rules” that make us feel “safe” because they keep others away.

In actuality these “rules” we make under the guise of “healthy boundaries” are driven by fear—not safety.  We implement such rules to feel comfortable. Comfort and safety are two different things. Comfort can rob healthy community because it prevents others from speaking into our lives and seeing our flaws. Community isn’t about what makes us comfortable. It’s about what makes us grow as people.

2.     Incorrectly defined boundaries foster self-absorption and entitlement.

When we use boundaries as an excuse to get out of something we don’t want to do, we are implementing our personal boundaries incorrectly.  Boundaries are not intended to justify avoidance by refusing to partake in something unpleasant.  In fact, helping someone at the expense of our comfort has actually shown to increase the quality of relationships and personal happiness.  However, boundaries can be used as an escape from partaking in such behavior.  And that self-centered behavior is then justified by throwing out the phrase: “I’m just asserting my personal boundary.”

Not really.

You’re asserting your laziness—and trying to justify it.

3.     Incorrectly defined boundaries make you rigid.

Some people often believe boundaries need to be fixed and immovable.  This is understandable if someone has had experience with someone who constantly pushed on his or her boundaries in an attempt to manipulate and control. Sometimes when we have such an experience with a person, we can become forceful with our boundaries in an attempt to protect ourselves from such intrusion.

The problem with this view is that it can make one rigid and inflexible with all people. Relationships are anything but stagnant. And if you find yourself digging in your heels to avoid flexibility with those you love and work with, you might be defining and executing your boundaries incorrectly.

Overall, boundaries are asserted to help you connect more meaningfully with others. They allow you to nourish yourself so you can have more to give to others.  They also help you assert how you want to be treated in your relationships. If you find yourself less connected than you desire with those around you, pay attention to how you are implementing boundaries in your life. Ask yourself how you can redefine what boundaries mean to you in a way that allows you to connect intimately while maintaining your autonomy. Remember: human connection is what gives our lives meaning. Boundaries are designed to help you experience that connection more fully. Don’t allow them to sabotage intimacy in your life by adopting and implementing them incorrectly.

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Lancer, D. (n.d.). The power of personal boundaries. Retrieved from http://www.whatiscodependency.com/the-power-of-personal-boundaries.

Four Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Spank Your Child

Let me be upfront: I personally don’t believe in spanking children. Now, I realize that I have likely isolated much of my audience by being so open about this controversial topic. Many of you are probably in staunch agreement with me, while some of you may have chalked me up to being narrow-minded, idealistic, naïve, or – simply - out of touch with reality. Many parents from older generations scoff at the idea that spanking a child can be harmful to his or her development. Others from a younger cohort are appalled that hitting is still even considered an option. Although, personally, I believe physical punishment is not the most appropriate means of discipline, I am a reasonable guy. I can see both sides of the argument, and I understand why spanking may be attractive to some parents. After all, many children stop their undesirable behavior immediately after they are spanked. Some parents may wonder, “if it ain’t broke, why would I fix it?” My argument would be that it may not be a completely broken method of discipline, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best option we have available to us. If you are someone who believes in spanking, take a moment to consider the following information before you administer physical discipline on your child.

What Does the Research Say?

 Most of the research conducted on physical punishment and children has shown negative effects on those who were physically punished. Some more recent findings indicate that physical punishment

·      Increases aggression in children.

·      Increases the likelihood of developing antisocial personality disorder.

·      Has been linked to depression, anxiety, and the use of drugs and alcohol.

·      Results in higher than normal levels of fear (Durrant & Ensom, 2012).

Many parents who advocate for physical punishment might perceive these findings as dramatic or unbelievable. After all, many of us (including myself) were physically disciplined by our parents and may not experience these symptoms. Some may question the legitimacy of this information if it does not align with their experience. It may be easy to dismiss such findings (which have been confirmed across multiple studies) and continue with your chosen discipline methods. However, if you are committed to disciplining your child physically, I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions before you do. If your answer is “yes” to any of these questions, you are likely to cause harmful effects to your child by administering physical punishment.

·      Do you have a history of losing control of your anger or frustration? All discipline needs to be administered with a cool head and clear mind. Those who struggle with staying calm in heated moments need to re-think their discipline methods. Discipline needs to be administered for the good of the child—not so the parent can have a cathartic release of anger. If you have a propensity toward anger, be honest about what’s best for your child—not you—and please consider an alternate means of discipline.

·      Does your child have a history of abuse? Children with abusive or traumatic backgrounds should not be disciplined physically. Solid research has shown that when we have experienced trauma of some type our brains operate more fearfully than a “normal” brain does (Forbes, 2010). Physical punishment causes a child’s brain to operate even more fearfully and does not lead to behavioral modification. Instead the child learns to respond to the parent or caregiver as an object of fear, and this interferes with parent-child bonding and attachment.

·      Does your child scare or intimidate easily? Children who have a more anxious or timid temperament should not be physically disciplined. Usually physical discipline is overboard for these children because they already feel badly or guilty for their misbehavior. Often strategies like time-outs or losing privileges are much more effective.

·      Is your child under the age of three? Children under the age of three should never be physically disciplined. A child’s frontal lobe comes “online” between the ages of two and three. The frontal lobe is what enables us to learn from experience, understand cause and effect relationships, and think critically. The frontal lobe does not finish developing until our mid-twenties. A child doesn’t understand cause and effect relationships until roughly age three. This is why we describe the toddler years as the “terrible twos.” No matter what we do to discipline a two-year-old they never seem to learn! Physically disciplining a child prior to age three is most likely to scare them and cause confusion because they lack the ability to connect their misbehavior to the spanking.

Overall, discipline is meant to correct and teach. It is not intended to make a parent feel better by lording power over a child or having a cathartic release because your child may have upset you. Whenever you discipline a child there needs to be a conversation—not just a punitive action. Explore with your child why he or she may have acted they way they did. Talk with them to see if they can think of different ways they could have behaved or responded. Too often I see parents spank or yell at children without any conversation being had. This does not lead to long-lasting corrective behavior. Rather, it breeds resentment and anger in the bonding between the parent and child. A strong bond between parent and child is the primary factor that leads to healthy child development and pro-social behavior. There will likely be times that you are unsure how to handle your child’s behavior and do not know what to do. Know your options if you feel your child is unmanageable. Seek professional help and allow yourself to be open to new ideas.

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Durrant, J. & Ensom, R. (2012). Physical punishment of children: Lessons of twenty years of research. Canadian Medical Association. 184(12).

Forbes, H. (2010). Beyond consequences, logic, and control: A love-based approach to helping children with severe behaviors. Boulder, CO: Beyond Consequences Institute.

Understanding and Intervening With Suicide

The recent suicide of Robin Williams left many of us shocked, heartbroken, and confused. How could someone so funny and full of life be depressed enough to take such a drastic measure? In America, over 39,000 people commit suicide each year (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). That’s a staggering number that can leave many of us perplexed and wondering how so many can be experiencing such a dark depression without anyone noticing or intervening. Suicide can sometimes appear nonsensical and leave us thinking there were no warning signs. However, upon closer inspection that is often not the case. In fact, 50-75% of people who attempt suicide tell someone about their intention (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, n.d.). Hopefully, the number of completed suicides will significantly decrease this upcoming year. In order for that to happen, we all must educate ourselves to recognize and appropriately intervene when someone we know may be suicidal.

The Signs of Suicide 

Someone who is contemplating taking their life will often drop subtle clues in an attempt to see if others will notice their cry for help. Unfortunately, these clues often go unnoticed. Some common behaviors and warning signs that indicate suicidal ideation include:

·      A previous suicide attempt

·      Verbal threats such as “I wish I were dead” or “Life doesn’t matter anymore.”

·      Significant behavioral changes such as an increase in risk-taking or an increase in becoming more reserved.

·      Giving away possessions.

·      An increase in alcohol or drug use.

·      Increased isolation from others.

·      Loss of interest in hobbies once enjoyed.

·      Self-mutilation.

·      Lack of interest in appearance.

·      Change or loss in appetite or weight (Highlands Behavioral Health, n.d.)

This list is not exhaustive. For more warning signs please visit here. Take notice if you see any of these behaviors in your friends and loved ones. It can be difficult to confront such behaviors, but doing so can save someone’s life.

How To Intervene When You Suspect Someone is Suicidal 

If you recognize any of these signs in someone, it is important to follow a few steps to get involved. To intervene effectively, one needs to do four things: ask, explore, disable, and resource.

Ask

First, ask about one’s suicidal intent. Do not shy away from asking this in a direct and clear way. It can surface a great deal of discomfort to think about asking such a bold question. However, you must step in if you think there is cause to be concerned. The best way to ask this question is directly and clearly. Do not downplay it or beat around the bush. Ask boldly. Some possible ways to do this include:

I have become concerned about you over the last few weeks, and I need to ask if you’re thinking about taking your life?

You have been in my thoughts this past week, and I’ve been uncomfortable by some of your recent comments. Are you thinking about committing suicide? 

Many people balk at the thought of asking such bold questions, but being direct is important for a couple of reasons. First, clearly asking about someone’s suicidal intent externalizes the problem. When someone is in intense emotional pain, they tend to lack the ability to think about problems in a solution-focused way. Their problem solving typically becomes emotion-focused, which can lead to black and white, all-or-nothing thinking. When we are emotion-focused, our emotions can cloud our judgment and we have a greater tendency to make rash and illogical decisions.

In addition, directly asking about someone’s suicidal ideation can clearly communicate that you are actively responding to the signals or signs they have displayed either intentionally or unintentionally. Everyone desires to be noticed and cared about. When someone takes notice of our actions and comments, it sends a clear message that we matter and that others care about what we intend to do. Many think about taking their lives because they feel invisible and unnoticed. Directly asking questions can discredit the belief that no one notices or cares.    

Explore 

If you’re able to open the door of communication by asking, explore with them their reasons for dying and their reasons for living. If someone discloses they are feeling suicidal when you ask them about their intentions, simply ask them their reasons for wanting to take their life. You are not a professional therapist, so you do not need to respond to their reasons. It’s more important to simply listen. After listening thoroughly to their reasons for desiring to end their life, explore with them their reasons for living. It is rare that someone cannot find at least one reason for living. Maybe it is to take care of a beloved pet. Maybe it is to complete a project at work. Maybe it is to avoid causing pain to their friends and family. Everyone can find a reason for living. Help your person uncover their reason.

I remember doing an assessment with a sixth-grade boy who was hospitalized for his suicidal thoughts. When I visited him in the hospital, I asked him about his reasons for living. The reason he came up with: he wanted to finish the playground wars that were currently going on at his elementary school. We talked about the importance of his attendance at the playground wars and how his teachers and classmates would miss out if he could not participate in the activities and games he had committed to. Simply discussing the playground wars and the important role he had revitalized and reminded him there are things he enjoys that make life fun at times.

If a person gets stuck at this point, I have found asking the following question to be helpful:

Do you really want to commit suicide, or do you just want the pain to stop? 

Such a question helps someone in intense emotional pain clarify his or her desires. Remember, when we are in emotional pain, our problem-solving tends to stay emotion-focused and irrational. Asking such a question forces someone to enter into a more solution-focused and rational stance separate from emotions. Stopping emotional pain is a solvable problem. Committing suicide is not. Help your loved one see the difference between these two options.

Disable

The third piece of intervention involves disabling any plans your loved one may have already made to end their life. If someone has expressed intent to take his or her life, you must ask another uncomfortable question:

How do you intend to kill yourself? 

Asking such a question helps you know how to help them disable their plan. If they say they would do it by shooting themselves, then let them know that you must remove the guns from their house and keep them with you.

If they say they would do it by overdosing on medication, then let them know you will need to take their medications to lock up in a safe place.

Find the means they have thought of to take their life and disable the plan to decrease their likelihood of harming themselves.

Resource 

The final piece to effectively intervene with someone suicidal is to offer resources. After helping them disable their plan, give them resources to reach out to when their thoughts become dark and suicidal again. If you feel comfortable, give them permission to call you over the next day until professional help can become involved. If you are uncomfortable with that, there are several hotlines and professional services in the Denver area that are valuable. Here are some I give out regularly: 

  • COMITIS Helpline: 303-343-9890 and http://www.comitis.org
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
  • Suicide.org: 1-800-784-2423
  • National Hopeline Network: 1-800-442-HOPE (4673) and http://www.hopeline.com
  • Denver Health Psychiatric ER: 303-602-7221

After you have completed these steps, it is imperative that you seek out professional help to intervene once you have verified suicidal intent. Call the police and a mental health professional to help assist you for the next steps.

Remember that growing in your awareness and skills to effectively notice and intervene when someone may be suicidal is incredibly important. Even if you can’t remember all of these steps perfectly, please remember this one important thing: be human.

Learn to be comfortable in the presence of pain.

Put down your phone. Be loving and attentive with the hearts of the people you know are depressed—and hug them or take their hand when they are courageous enough to talk about their very important pain. Physical human contact can penetrate suffering.

Make an effort to check in on your loved ones that you know are struggling. Even if they don’t answer their phones, go the extra mile to show you care. Make eye contact when they talk in mumbles. Practice the words “suicide” and “depression” so they roll off your tongue easily and effortlessly.

Cry with them.

Sit silently when you don’t know what to say. Don’t numb the awkwardness that human suffering can surface by simply muttering useless words that do not add anything valuable to the situation.

Being comfortable around suffering is a skill that will serve you well in the future; it will make you a better friend, spouse, and parent.

Not only will it make you a better person, it will also make you a more effective conduit to possibly save someone’s life.

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American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (n.d.). Risk factors and warning signs. Retrieved from http://www.afsp.org/preventing-suicide/risk-factors-and-warning-signs.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Suicide facts at a glance. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/suicide_datasheet_2012-a.pdf.

Highlands Behavioral Health. (n.d.). Family and friend’s guide to helping a loved one who is suicidal. Unpublished manuscript.

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