Following a Dream: Animal-Assisted Therapy

The Beginnings of a Counsellor:
My burning desire when I entered the field of counselling was to be of service to people who felt stuck. The first job I had in the counselling field, when I was fresh out of university, was for an employment counselling agency. My role was to work with clients who were unemployed, and assist them in securing employment. Sounds straightforward enough, right? What I actually discovered very quickly was that my clients were without work for very significant reasons: depression, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety, to name a few. Many of my clients had immigrated to Canada from countries in war, extreme poverty, and chaos. These folks had witnessed and lived through horrors and tragedies beyond description. It didn’t feel right to keep the focus on work-related goals when their emotional life was in need of nurturing. It also didn’t feel right to refer them to someone else after they had already been bounced around to so many workers. But ethically, I didn’t have the skills to provide mental health counselling. An undergraduate degree in psychology doesn’t fully equip a person with the necessary skills to be a Counsellor. While I had a very good work relationship with my employer, she was constantly reminding me to keep my focus with clients on work-related goals, and to refer them out for everything else. Needless to say, employment counselling wasn’t the profession for me! I applied to the University of Calgary and after 3 brilliant-laborious-inspiring years I graduated with a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology.

It’s hard to talk about the tough stuff!
It is so much easier to talk about the things that make us feel comfortable, to stay within our comfort zone and not push the limits of our window of tolerance. Suppression and denial can become habits and if we stay disconnected from our strong emotions for too long, eventually we start to fear having emotions. But connecting with emotions (in titrated ways) and pushing the limits of our comfort zone is exactly how healing, insight and awareness, and change start to happen.

My next burning desire as a Counsellor was to make it not so 12188172_10156137948155142_6567896615004368019_odamn hard for people to connect with the tough
stuff. I love animals, and animals have always been a source of comfort for me during difficult times. Perhaps an animal in the counselling room would be comforting to clients. Over the years that followed, I researched and learned about animal-assisted therapy, eventually concluding that a service dog would be the route to follow.

Enter 2015: the year of the dog
Okay, not really. In the Chinese zodiac it was actually the year of the sheep. But in my family, it was the year of the dog. I had decided on a breed and a trainer, and flew all the way across Canada to adopt Maven, a Shiloh Shepherd.

The adorable fluff-ball… with razor sharp teeth!
Maven was a super cute rambunctious ball of fluffy fur. But looks can be deceiving! At 3 months old, Maven nipped excessively, jumped up, and defecated in the house. Everyone wanted to cuddle her but no one dared get too close! I am FullSizeRenderpleased to say that by 4 months, Maven had settled down and was no longer nipping (and was successfully doing ‘her business’ outside). By 6 months, I began working with 2 fantastic trainers: Cheri Kolstad, a service dog trainer based out of Penticton, and Vernon’s own The Crate Escape obedience dog trainer Vanessa.

When Maven was 1 year old, I began taking her to work with me. While she was largely still in training, it was amazing how transformative sessions became with her present.

Training is still on-going, but at least 2 days a week Maven joins me at work. Having a dog in session isn’t for everyone, and I always ask a client’s permissions prior to bringing Maven in.

Stay posted for more details about Maven’s training, and about her (eventual) crisis dog testing.

 

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Treading Water

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day.

I have never been a strong swimmer. Despite many years that my parents insisted I take swimming lessons, I rarely advanced to next levels and struggled grasping the basic skills. I remember, from all those years ago, the importance that was placed on treading water. We would be taken into the deep end of the pool, and taught how to keep our heads above water. The rational was always should we ever find ourselves in deep water, we needed to be able to keep our heads above water. With our legs and arms moving rhythmically to the point of exhaustion, sometimes sinking under but popping back up again, we kept our heads above water. The exercise always ended before the point of complete exhaustion, when the instructor would throw us a life preserver of sorts. We would make our way to the side of the pool in relief, letting our exhausted limbs be still.

Today is World Suicide Awareness Day. Despite awareness programs in many communities and schools, suicide largely remains a difficult topic to discuss – shrouded in misunderstanding, denial, and secrecy. Those contemplating suicide often feel unheard, sensing help unavailable. (Please read on for resources that are available.) Those wanting to help often feel powerless, unsure of how to proceed – sometimes reacting in anger or panic.

When I think about the emotional turmoil someone experiences at the point when suicide becomes an option, I think about treading water. I think about the utter exhaustion they are feeling, often building overtime, of not being able to keep their head above water. When a life preserver isn’t thrown at the moment it is needed or when it is thrown but it seems just out of reach. When they feel there isn’t an once of strength left to keep their head above water. This is the reason I write this blog – to help even just one person grab that life preserver, and connect with a glimpse of
hope.

If ending your life is starting to make sense as an option, please reach out for help. Suicide is a permanent solution that we cannot turn back from. All other options may not seem adequate enough in your moment of despair. So many of us are conditioned to be self-reliant and self-sufficient and reaching out for help can seem like a weakness. It might even feel as though you are not worthy of receiving help, or that if you ask for help it will not be given. “Once you choose hope, anything is possible”. If there is no one you feel you can reach out to, please call the helpline, or use an on-line anonymous suicide prevention chat site. Suicide is not the only way out. 

quote_-far-better-things-aheadHere is a list of options if you are feeling suicidal right now: 

 

Reference: the quote “Once you choose hope, anything is possible” is from Christopher Reeve

Creative Approaches for Children: ‘Live Calm Kids’ Group

“Do children’s groups really work? Do they actually engage in the process?”

Yesterday I was promoting a children’s group that I am co-facilitating (Live Calm Kids), and these are the questions someone asked me. They are great questions, and I really enjoyed our conversation. I thought it would be a helpful topic to write about – because many others might be wondering the same questions!

I believe that all therapy is designed to help us grow emotionally and move toward solutions to the difficulties we experience. There are so many benefits to group counselling, especially for children. The group therapy experience is unique because aside from the skilled facilitators, participants are within their peer group. The group itself becomes a powerful vehicle for change because so much of our learning comes from our social interactions.

“We human beings are social beings” (Dalai Lama)

When a group environment is positive and well facilitated, the universal needs for belonging, acceptance, and approval can be met, which foster resiliency in children. Experiencing a sense of “fitting in” can be difficult for those struggling with anxiety – a counselling group can be a powerful place for them to feel accepted and valued. A sense of belonging comes to replace their feelings of isolation and separateness.

children_waterfrontWhen children are struggling with anxiety, they often feel as though something is wrong with them. Because of this, bringing together a group of children with similar difficulties is powerful. Together they discuss emotions, learn about their reactions, and practice coping skills within a supportive group setting; with the subtle underpinning that they are not alone in their experience. Being around others with similar difficulties helps kids to feel understood, a powerful antidote to the sense of being different from others.

In a counselling group, children have the ability to watch others learn coping behaviours and hear their stories of success. This instills hope and inspiration as they become encouraged by their peers’ positive experiences.

We are social beings, and as such much of our self-esteem is development via feedback and reflection from others. Group counselling provides children with opportunities to improve their ability to relate to others through discussions, art, movement, and playful techniques.

And we can’t forget the power of modeling when it comes to learning! The group facilitators have an important role in modeling active listening, providing non-judgmental feedback, and offering support. Over the course of the group, children start to pick up on these behaviours and incorporate them. And by doing so, they being to receive increasingly positive feedback from others, which serves to enhance their self-esteem and emotional growth.

The course of therapy and healing will be unique for everyone; group therapy can establish the foundations necessary to reduce stress-related symptoms and lead to positive changes. Please contact me if you would like to learn more about the group Live Calm Kids.

LiveCalmKids


Resources:

Paul Kymissis & David Halperin (ed), Group Therapy with Children and Adolescents
Cathy Malchiodi, Creative Interventions with Traumatized Children
Irvin Yalom, The Theory and Practice of Group Therapy

Helping your Child with Nightmares (and Setting the Stage for Sweet Dreams)

bearinbedFor any parent who has awoken in the night to their child’s frightened cries, the experience can leave you feeling powerless and bewildered. Although hugs of comfort are given in the moment, often these parents seek further information – what can they do next time and how can they help their child. For that reason, I wanted to put some information out for parents whose children experience nightmares.  Please read on, and try out any ideas below that might fit for your situation and for your child.

Scary dreams can be very common in children and adolescents. And while these nightmares can be a part of normal development, they can also be a result of stressful or traumatic experiences, family conflict, and parental anxiety. Understanding the reasons for such dreams does not make it any easier when it comes to comforting your child after a nightmare. The detailed information below can help you respond to your child during their moment of fear after a nightmare and also help you to set up a bedtime routine that encourages and supports sweet dreams.

Supporting your Child after a Nightmare:

Listening and being supportive of your child after a nightmare is important: it helps reduce their fear and also enhances the secure attachment relationship you have with your child. Try not to force your child to talk about their dream, and do not be dismissive of their dream or their fear. Provide reassurance of their safety. Depending on your child, it can be helpful to get out of bed and have a glass of water. The process of moving into a different room to have the water (moving the body), can serve to dissipate the fear and assist the child in changing their focus of attention.

Once your child has settled somewhat, you could employ her imagination to create a relaxing scene, or images of protection to facilitate relaxation, settling, and to help her fall back to sleep. If you notice that she isn’t easily letting go of the dream, you could help her imagine a different ending to it.

For some children with very vivid nightmares, drawing out what they remember (or scribbling it) and then destroying the paper can create a sense of containment, completion, and empowerment. If you choose to use this method with your child:

  • don’t have your child create the picture in the bed where they had the dream and are expected to go back to sleep in
  • don’t ask questions about what was drawn or written; instead, check in with your child (i.e. “Are you okay? Are you ready to destroy it?”)
  • do make a production of destroying it; ask your child how she wants it destroyed (i.e. into many little pieces, crumpled up and tossed into the trash can, taken out of the house immediately and put in the trash can outside, and so forth)
  • do ensure movement is involved; have your child get up out of their chair to destroy the paper
  • do make containment more conscious; after the image is destroyed, ask “if parts of that bad dream pop in to your mind again tonight, how can you remind yourself that you destroyed it? Remember how you took power over that image and destroyed it. You are safe and it has no power over you now”.

Setting the Stage to Encourage Sweet Dreams:

Nightmares can be a result of traumatic experiences. Reminders of the event can trigger a nightmare, and so can working through the traumatic experience in therapy (even though containment and precautions are used to minimize distress post-session). The following list of suggestions can be used to increases the likelihood of sweet dreams.

  • Help your child learn how to use her imagination: imagine together what a safe place would look like, what her most protective creature would like (and what it does to be protective of her, where it is in her room at night while she is sleeping – does it keep watch over her, and so forth). while doing bedtime, talk about what would be fun to dream about. Offer up your own starting points to get her imagination flowing (i.e. “Tonight when I go to sleep, it sure would be fun to dream about flying up with the birds and butterflies – I’d check out all the cool places they get to go when they fly out of our sight. What do you think would be fun to dream of?”
  • Talk about issues hours before bedtime: Check in with your child during the day, not just before bed. Talk with them about their worries, fears, and so forth. Doing so will give your child lots of time to practice using positive coping thoughts or to have the experience of feeling safe before bedtime
  • Night Lights: some children benefit from having a small night light on in their bedrooms. Fun new night lights project stars on to the walls, which can add a playful comforting feeling at bedtime. Alternatively, you could give your child a small flashlight, which she maintains control over should she want it on or off at any point
  • Open Doors: leaving your child’s bedroom door open can help her to feel as though she is still connected to her parents (her source of safety), leaving no doubt in her mind that help, if needed, will be easily obtained
  • Guided Relaxation: try reading a relaxation script for your child at bedtime. It can serve to put your child into a calm and peaceful frame of mind prior to dozing off
  • Security Objects: it might be helpful for your child to take their favorite stuffy to bed, or other security object. Security objects tend to help children feel relaxed and comforted
  • Television and screen time: try to avoid screen time just before bed. If your child is going to be watching tv just before bed, avoid scary shows that could add to her fears and make settling difficult

In therapy, your child is learning all kinds of helpful coping skills that facilitate awareness, acceptance of experiences, affect regulation, and healing. If you are aware of these some of these skills, use them with your child to aid in settling after a bad dream. Normalize the experience of the nightmare for her, so that she doesn’t feel ashamed or as though something is wrong with her.

Good luck, and sweet dreams!

Helpful Capacities on the Journey of Healing

In her book ‘Healing from Trauma”, Jasmine Lee Cori outlines the following list of personal resources that help when healing from traumatic experiences. Personal resources are inherent capacities which individuals possess, such as their strength and abilities, healthful activities, the ability to regula affect, a caring and trustworthy support system, and so forth. Cori additionally states that personal resources are healthy patterns, ones which create a sense of feeling good and accepting oneself in ways that are truthful, and not based in self-deception or indulgence.

If you are just starting your healing journey, or even if you are well into it, please review Cori’s list of helpful capacities below. Each capacity reflects something which can further or enhance our healing. As you read through the list, consider which capacities you possess, and which you  might like to develop. How might you build and develop these capacities  in your life?

  • Awareness: the capacity to recognize what is going on around and within you. Awareness is the key to much healing and change
  • Curiosity: the interest to know more, to look at your own experience with free, interested eyes rather than from a stuck perspective
  • Courage: the willingness to face what is difficult
  • Discernment: the capacity to see what is so. To know when to back out of something (such as an unfolding emotional process) and when to go through it
  • Compassion: the capacity to hold your own hurt (and others hurts) with a kind heart
  • Prudence: the capacity to make healthy choices for yourself and avoid what is harmful
  • Hope: a sense that things can get better
  • Humor: the capacity to look with amusement at things that might otherwise get you down, to hold a larger perspective
  • Love: the capacity to receive and extend caring, to bond
  • Resourcefulness: the capacity to identify and locate resources that would be helpful, as well as fully utilize your own capacities
  • Resiliency: the capacity to pick yourself up and try again, to bounce back after being hurt
  • Strength, Persistence, Will: the capacity to run the marathon, to follow the journey through trauma and not give up or collapse into a trauma-ridden life
  • Trust: the capacity to let go of worry and feel some confidence that things will turn out okay

Check our Jasmine Lee Cori’s book, Healing from Trauma: A Survivor’s Guide to Understanding your Symptoms and Reclaiming your Life.

Making Time to Heal …without losing the entire day

“Shit happens. It can embitter and traumatize us for the rest of our lives, or we can slowly integrate it, moving through its pain as we become simultaneously softer and stronger, wiser and less cynical. You didn’t choose what happened, but you can choose your path now.” — Jasmine Lee Cori

We all need some down time to reflect and foster personal growth and enhance our self-awareness. For those who have experienced trauma(s), utilizing this “down time” is even more essential to their healing. The experience of trauma often leaves people finding that they are easily overcome by feelings of fear, worry, anxiety, panic, and/or sadness. At the beginning of counselling, and even prior to starting counselling, we may not know how to handle these overwhelming feelings. We may find it easier to “stuff” them away and ignore them. While this may help momentarily, it won’t help you heal from the trauma and it won’t enable you to move on with your life. Creating time to heal is a helpful way to work on the difficult experience while also containing those overwhelming emotions.

  1. Plan a time (no more than 1 hour), in which you will take the time to heal – and make a list of what you could do for your healing during this time. You can do anything you want during this time, such as writing in your journal, talking with a close and trusted friend or family member, reading about trauma and its impact, meditating, working on self-awareness activities suggested by your Counsellor, and so forth. Try choosing at time of day which you know you  will most likely be uninterrupted. A time of the day when you feel strong, when your energy is at its highest. NOTE: In the evening or around bedtime is NOT the most ideal time for this type of activity because it is harder to contain afterward and sleep may become disrupted.
  1. Schedule this time into your day, once or twice per week. Make an honest commitment to yourself to use this time for your healing, and then try your best to stick to the schedule.
  1. Choose a quiet place where you will have your healing time. Perhaps a room or place where you feel safe, comfortable, and strong. Try to use the same spot each time as this creates consistency – something which trauma survivors have rarely had in their lives. If you are using books or journals, make sure that these things can be kept private from the people you are living with. Make sure to turn off your phone during this time, or talk to the people you are living with to ensure you are uninterrupted.
  1. Create a ritual around your healing time – doing so will serve to contain it. This means doing something specific and deliberate before your healing time begins and when it ends. After the set-aside hour, the rest of the day is yours to enjoy. The rituals will allow you to move on from this time without the thoughts lingering throughout the day. The ritual you choose will be unique to you. For example, you might want to start your healing time by lighting a candle, and end it by blowing out the candle. An ending ritual could involve closing the book you were working in and putting it away. An ending might involve making a cup of tea for yourself and listening to your favorite music. Ending rituals that get you moving have many benefits, also. These might include doing some stretching, or going for a walk – something that will instill a physiological sensation of calm, or strength. You could even end your healing time by washing your hands, or talking a shower – both of which can be symbolic of washing away what you were just thinking about and letting go for today. The beginning ritual clearly identifies that your healing time has started, while the ending ritual plays the part of clearly identifying you are finished for now.
  1. It might be helpful set a timer to indicate when your allotted time is up. This way you will be able to better concentrate – and decrease the likelihood that you sit and constantly watch the clock while working through your chosen activities. When your time is up, take an additional 5 minutes or so to finish off what you were doing. Tell yourself that you made progress and that that is enough for one day – be positive and kind to yourself. You have most likely experienced enough abuse throughout your life that you do not need to be perpetuating it by being cruel or harsh towards yourself. If there is something significant that you had been thinking about or working on, write yourself a note for tomorrow as a reminder of what you want to focus on then. Be sure to write it down, as this clearly removes the thought from your mind and decreases the likelihood that you will be ruminating on it for the remainder of the day.
  1. Incorporate containment strategies between healing times. For example, throughout the day(s) until your next scheduled healing time, if thoughts or overwhelming emotions arise, write them down on a piece of paper and put that paper in the place you are using for your healing time. What you are telling yourself is this: “My healing time is over for today. I understand that this is important, that this emotion has meaning and is telling me something – but this is not the time for it. I will make a note to myself to deal with this during my next healing time, but I will not let it take control of me right now”.
  1. Remember that a new habit doesn’t take root overnight – it takes time to embody the change and the healing you desire. You may find yourself at first writing many things down throughout the day to “put away”– or you may find yourself repeatedly writing the same thing down, and that is okay. You are now in the process of training yourself to deal with the hard stuff on your terms. Doing so enables you to maintain strong problem-solving skills throughout the day and will assist you in feeling emotionally in control.

…And One more Thing to Always remember:
Be patient with yourself. At first this may be very difficult, so stay in contact with your Counsellor or a supportive friend or family member. The more caring people you have on your side encouraging you the better. Remember that trauma is something that happens to people, it doesn’t define who you are as a person. You deserve to live a life in which you are free from emotional turmoil and upset. Allowing yourself specific time to heal is a strategy that can enable you to achieve that. At first you may feel as though you have nothing to work on. You might just sit and stare at a blank page and feel unproductive. That is okay. Try a free writing exercise: this is where you put your pen to paper and just write whatever comes to mind without stopping. Research shows that by doing this, eventually what is bothering you will come to the surface. Or, you could start by looking at a picture that triggers certain memories of the trauma. You could also talk with your Counsellor about a starting point that fits you best. We are all unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Healing is a slow process – bearing this in mind may help you keep a realistic perspective of your own process.

Quote From:
Healing from Trauma: A Survivor’s Guide to Understanding your Symptoms and Reclaiming your Life, by Jasmine Lee Cori