Listening to our Emotions

(Lesson 3 with the Vernon Community School, SD22) Let’s try to make sense today of what it would mean to experience our emotions in a different way. Rather than fearing them and shutting them down – actually noticing the sensations of our emotions, and considering the messages within the emotions. How do we learn to hear the message of the emotion? Well, emotions are often felt in the body – there is some sensation stirred up. Because of that, it seemed fitting to start our group today by thinking about a recent situation (unique to each student) that triggered some emotion. Once each student had an example in mind, I asked them to notice what sensations stirred up in their bodies. The students noticed that there was a lot of muscle tension that accompanied their emotions: tightness in their chest, throat, and stomach. Some students giggled and noticed a lot of nervous energy in their bodies. The key is to notice the emotion in your body: just observing the sensations the emotion evokes in your body, and less of those verbal descriptions. Become a curious observer – notice and track the sensations, and how they change (intensifying or lessening). Ultimately, if we learn to notice our emotions and how they impact us, we can tap into the message of the emotion and perhaps even the energy of that emotion – and that emotion will then despite. But what if it doesn’t? Sometimes our emotions do run awry. What if fear bubbles up in a person and when she tunes in, she notices the energy of her fear response but there is no message? We need to change the way we understand these emotions in our bodies, and have an understanding of how our brain processes emotion. For a great description of how the brain processes emotion, check out the Integrated Wellness blog. Fear rises up from our reptilian brain (I know, why the heck does it have to be called the ‘reptilian’ brain?? Well, its because 3 important parts of the human brain emerged successively in the course of evolution. These include the brain stem, the limbic system, and the neocortex). The term ‘reptilian brain’ refers to the brain stem and the cerebellum. These parts of the brain control vital body functions such as heart rate, temperature, and breathing. It is the center for our survival and instinctual behaviours – they are reliable but often rigid and compulsive (and thus resistant to change!). Back to the example of fear flaring up. These situations can trigger panic responses in our bodies. If we fear the panic response in the body, we grow to fear emotions that lead to fear and panic, which can lead to avoidance behaviour. Unfortunately, if we don’t want to have an emotion, try as we might not to have it, we still will – just in covert ways. (For example – not wanting to feel the energy of ‘anxiety’ but then noticing this energy has converted into an argumentative communication style in relationships). So instead of being so quick to shut down those emotions – let’s try working through them over the next few weeks.

  1. Notice the emotion instead of quickly shutting it down, bracing or defending against it.
  2. Notice how that emotion manifests in your body (use that ‘curious observer’ to notice what sensations are there in your body – what muscles tighten? How does your breathing change? How does your posture or body movements change?)
  3. If the sensations you notice with the emotion are over-whelming – use one of the techniques we discussed for grounding:
  • usearrow your imagination and visualize the uncomfortable sensations as a colour – allow the colour to move through your body and out through your feet
  • take a moment to write/draw/scribble in your journal as a way to process the emotion
  • imagination technique of protection

These 3 points are all designed to just get you grounded, so that you don’t feel so overwhelmed by the emotions. Once grounded and back in your thinking brain, it becomes a little easier to decide what course of action you would like to take (responding to the emotion).   To learn more, check out Karla McLaren’s blog. She talks a great deal about being with our emotions, and breaking cycles of fearing our emotions.

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Four Reasons Why our Emotions are Important

(Lesson 2 with the Vernon Community School, SD22)

I thought it would be helpful to start out our journey together by exploring the role of emotions. Understanding the role of emotions is an important starting place because emotions are largely misunderstood. We are often sent messages from a young age not to feel certain ways. A common example is a caregiver saying to child “don’t cry” – often because they themselves feel uncomfortable with emotion. Society sends us messages about emotions that are “good” or “unacceptable” – and we then become conditioned that we are unacceptable when we feel this ways. There is a great blog written by Karla McLaren’s about common misunderstandings people have about emotions – check it out if you have a moment.

 The Role of Emotions… in 4 points

1) The Need for Balance (and what happens when we don’t have it)

We don’t enter into this world with the ability to handle intense emotions. Our ability to for affect regulation depends on many circumstances. What we are often left with is a lack of balance between the experience of intense emotions that arise from difficult experiences and the skills required to process those emotions in healthy ways

Emotions_1_docx

2) The problem of not feeling our feelings (why numbing those strong emotions isn’t the solution)

In a similar way that our body strives for homeostasis (internal balance), so to does our body strive for emotional balance. So when the EXPERIENCE of intense emotions EXCEEDS our ability to COPE with those intense emotions, problems arise. Without the needed skills to be with those emotions and work through them, we start to seek out anything that will reduce the distress we feel. Psychologist Kevin Miller writes the following:

“When we experience difficult and particularly horrible sensations and feelings, our tendency is to recoil and avoid them. Mentally, we split off or ‘dissociate’ from these feelings. Physically, our bodies tighten and brace against them. Our minds go into overdrive trying to explain and make sense of these alien and ‘bad’ sensations. So, we are driven to vigilantly attempt to locate their ominous source in the outside world. We believe that if we feel the sensations, they will overwhelm us forever. The fear of being consumed by these ‘terrible’ feelings leads us to convince ourselves that avoiding them will make us feel better and, ultimately, safer. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. “

Unfortunately, the unhealthy behaviours we might choose serve their purpose only temporarily and often create additional problems. They create a false sense of balance by numbing the distress). By learning to feel our emotions and regulate our emotional state in healthy ways, we render these unhealthy behaviours unnecessary.

3) The Feeling your Feelings Proposition

I proposed to the group that there is another way to view our emotions. What if we could view them as giving us important information about ourselves. So we don’t fear our emotions but rather look at them and learn from the messages they have for us. Our emotions are meant to motivate us to take action, to help us survive and avoid danger, and to assist us in making decisions – essentially, to take action.

4) The real Purpose of those Emotions (Harnessing the Power of our Emotions)

Psychologist Kevin Miller writes that emotions are behavioural readiness. Our emotions want us to take action (depending on what the situation requires and what the emotion is telling us). The very word emotion alludes to the notion of motion. When we suppress our emotions because they are uncomfortable, we are suppressing the energy associated with those emotions. So, we need to recognize, understand, and reflect on our emotions.

Our emotions provide us with important messages. If we tune in and listen (i.e. noticing how our body experiences emotion) we can then hear that message and respond appropriately.

 


References:

McLaren, K. (2010). The Language of Emotions.

Miller, K. (2012). Mind-Body Attunement Therapy, Clinical Strategies. http://mind-bodyattunement.com/

 

 

My Mentorship Opportunity

Children do not enter into this world knowing how to work through strong emotions. Quite a few conditions actually need to exist for us to foster in kids the ability to deal with their emotions in healthy ways. Without this ability, when difficulties in life happen, we risk kids learning to shut down their emotions, or to fear their emotional reactions, or perhaps to view them as a sign of weakness and grow angry at themselves. If we could help kids learn healthy ways to be with their emotions, I believe they will grow to be stronger, more compassionate, content individuals. I also believe their communication patterns and relationships will improve.

The reality is that many children are not learning how to be with their strong emotions. The world we live in bombards us with messages that can be confusing (show this emotion but not that emotion; this emotion is good but that one is bad; keep calm; don’t show your fear, and so forth).

The good news is that a lot of great researchers (such as Daniel Siegel) are publishing books for parents on how to foster these skills in kids. Some teachers have even started teaching these skills in schools with the MindUP program and Zones of Regulation. The great news is that a lot of people want to learn these skills – including kids. I am so pleased to be a mentor at the Vernon Community School – helping youth aged 12-15 learn the skills to understand their emotions, be with their emotions, and respond to their emotions differently. Each week I’ll post an overview of what we talked about, so that the group (and anyone else who is interested!) can refer back and refresh their learning as needed!

references

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!

Help for Insomnia: Creating a Bedtime Routine

sleepA good nights sleep (and more importantly, consecutive nights of getting good sleep!) is incredibly important, yet it is something as adults we rarely give much attention to. Our brains need sleep in order to function properly and regulate emotion effectively. Learning is easier when we sleep well, and so is decision making. Even coping with change becomes more manageable when our brains have been rested! Jim White (2000) writes,

“Poor sleeping fails to recharge the individual’s batteries. Thus, during the next day, the individual is less able to fight the effects of stress. Stress then feeds the sleep problems the following night and a vicious cycle has developed. Over a period of weeks or months, the individual’s ability to cope slowly declines. Learning how to improve the quality and quantity of sleep will leave the individual in a better state to fight daytime stress. Fighting daytime stress will help the individual overcome sleep problems. A positive cycle has replaced the vicious cycle.”

Read on to learn ideas on creating and implementing a bedtime routine that soothes. Every person is unique, so please do add/edit/modify as necessary to fit your own life better.

It is important to create a bedtime routine that you can be consistent with each night, regardless of the time you go to bed. Anytime we try out a new routine, I always suggest to try following it consistently for 21 days – simply because evidence does suggest that the more frequently we do something, the more likely it is to become instinctual. So in other words, the more a behaviour is repeated, the more likely it will become a part of your routine.

The following is a list of ideas for creating a soothing bedtime routine. No need to incorporate all of them – select the ones that fit for you and your life, and then create your own routine!

  1. Start the bedtime routine about 30 minutes prior to the time you want to be in bed
  2. Take a shower, or even just wash your face/hands – doing so is symbolic of washing the remnants of the day away
  3. Make a cup of decaf tea for yourself, or have a glass of water
  4. Sit down (but not in bed), and take a few minutes to write out any left-over thoughts that are troubling you. Troubling thoughts could go in to a ‘dumping journal’ – which is never kept but instead each entry destroyed in order to create closure, a sense of letting go, and to ensure your privacy. The thoughts that go into the dumping journal are often the angry, sad, or fearful thoughts that you wouldn’t want to look back on.
  5. End with a positive note: use another journal (one that you want to keep and look back on) to finish on a positive note. You could write anything in this one – something you hope for the next day, what you did well this day, what you have learned that you want to remember, something someone did for you that was kind, etc. You could also fill it with beautiful pictures, sayings that are important to you, and so forth. This is the journal that lifts you up and leaves you smiling.
  6. Put the journal away – you have given attention to those troubling thoughts and devised a plan for the next day, so you can be finished looking at those troubling thoughts for the night now
  7. Read.  Not a murder mystery, and not a book that will take a lot of analytical thinking. Try a frivolous read – doing so can help you start to settle.
  8. Still not feeling settled? Lay down in bed and try listening to a meditation for relaxing. Jon Kabat-Zinn (mindfulness meditation) and Paul McKenna (guided hypnosis) have excellent recorded meditations – but there are many other options.

If you find your mind wandering towards troublesome thoughts while you are listening to the meditation, try to bring your awareness back to the meditation, with gentle kindness towards yourself. You are learning something new, after all – and that can take time. If you find that troublesome thoughts are overpowering, you can no longer focus, or if fear is mounting rapidly, get out of bed. Once you are out of bed, return to your sitting place and write or scribble those thoughts into the dumping journal. If you live with someone caring, try talking with them. Afterwards, remind yourself that although looking at these troublesome thoughts is helpful, it is not helpful to ruminate on them at bedtime. You have given some attention to them and you will attend more to them tomorrow!

References:

Jim White (2000). Treating Anxiety and Stress

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Guided Mindfulness
Meditation http://www.mindfulnesscds.com/collections/all-1/products/series-4

Paul McKenna
http://www.paulmckenna.com/sleep

 

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.