Monday, November 18, 2019

The Bruised Heart: The Importance of Inner Work in Therapy


by Michael Bridges, PhD

One of the great blessings I’ve experienced is that most of my professional life has involved helping people from all walks of life heal through the practice of psychotherapy. While I’ve practiced psychotherapy since I received my PhD in the early 90s, for many years I was also a university professor who did research on what factors brought about a “corrective emotional experience” that helped people change for the better. One of the most important factors is, not surprisingly, the quality of the relationship clients develop with their therapist. However, a factor that may be even more important is the relationship that clients develops in therapy with their own inner world. Research now shows that some of the most healing moments happen when clients move from focusing in therapy on the outer world and shift their attention to their inner world of emotions, sensations, memories and images. This is what I refer to as the “Inner Work” of therapy.

The importance of focusing on this inner world was brought home to me some years ago when I was doing research on what helped people get over betrayals and other attachment injuries in close relationships. I was the therapist for Elizabeth (aspects of the following have been changed to protect the client’s confidentiality), an intelligent and motivated young woman in her thirties who was participating because she was having difficulty letting go of the pain and anger related to an affair. Years before she had found out that her husband of 12 years was having an affair with her best friend. This double betrayal left her so devastated that she eventually left her marriage. She also became so depressed that she entered therapy and for a few months took an antidepressant. After about a year she regained her ability to function and no longer felt depressed. But in our first session she shared that she still thought about her ex several times a week and felt pangs of sadness and anger. She also shared that, although she was a vivacious, intelligent and attractive woman and had no problem finding men to date, whenever she started to become emotionally close, something in her would say, “That’s it!” And she would end the relationship.

Elizabeth had already been in therapy for a year after her divorce and had liked her therapist and felt they made substantial progress that had alleviated her depression. So why was it that, four years later, she still felt she had to shield her heart in a romantic relationship? Instead of continuing to explore her history and go back over the insights she had from her previous therapy, I suggested that, in our second session, she allow me to guide her into her inner world by using a technique developed by the psychologist Eugene Gendlin, called Focusing. This involved having her close her eyes and move out of thoughts and words and to wait for her body to develop a “felt sense” of what was holding her back.

After a few minutes she sighed and placed her hand over her heart and said softly, “It’s like my heart is tender and bruised.  It is like my heart is not saying, “Don’t love.” It is more that it is saying, “Be careful! Be careful.”

In stark contrast to her bruised heart, she also became aware of a sense of energy and strength in her stomach. She smiled as she placed her hand over her stomach and described how she could tell how this felt sense inspired her in her work as a dancer and choreographer and she continued to beam as she described seeing the energy spread down her legs connecting her with people she loved.

I was frankly amazed and delighted by what was Elizabeth was sharing. This, after all, was only our second session! I also think it is important to add that I was not using guided imagery. All what Elizabeth was sharing was coming from her just patiently attending to the sensations, images and associations that were spontaneously arising from her own inner work. We were near the end of our session and, I found myself imagining her standing in that place of strength and light in her stomach and looking up at her bruised heart. Almost on a whim I shared the image with her and she agreed to try it out. What happened next astounded both of us.

As she imagined moving to that place of light and strength in her stomach and gazing up at her heart, the smile slowly faded from her face. Suddenly she leaned forward and put her face in her hands and started sobbing. When she lifted her face up, she was still crying but there was a smile on her face. She was literally smiling through her tears as she shared, “When I looked up…I saw this red, purple bruised heart... but suddenly, there was white light bursting out of it! Like my heart was showing me, I still have so much love to give!”

As profound as this session was for both of us, I don’t want to suggest that Elizabeth shed all her fears surrounding romantic relationships in one session. But she often referred to that session as significant for restoring her faith in her own ability to love. Since this was a research study, our therapy was limited to 14 sessions. But at the end of that time she was feeling much less anxious, had started to date for the first time in over a year, and instead of ruminating about her ex several times a week shared, "I'm really not thinking about him. If I do, it's almost like thinking about a movie I saw a couple years ago. It's not charged the way it was."

If you would like to read a Philadelphia Inquirer article about the research that this article was based on, which includes an interview with Elizabeth, click here: http://theresiliencycenter.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/What-becomes-of-the-broken-hearted-Philly-Inq-Article-2004.pdf

If you are more scientifically minded or a therapist yourself, the link below leads to a PDF of an article I wrote for The Journal of Clinical Psychology that describes the research in more detail:
http://theresiliencycenter.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Activating-the-Corrective-Emotional-Experience-Bridges-2006.pdf

Michael R Bridges, Ph.D. has been a psychologist, professor and therapist for over 30 years. Dr. Bridges’ psychotherapy specialties include depression, trauma and anxiety, job stress and career transition. He has experience working with individuals from diverse backgrounds but currently works with many physicians, health-care professionals, attorneys, business professionals, academics and other therapists who function in demanding work environments. He helps clients do their own inner-work using empirically informed methods derived from Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, Emotionally Focused and Cognitive Behavioral Therapies. He can be reached at drmbridges1@gmail.com or 215-868-6393.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Transitional Ceremonies to Destress and Reconnect Throughout Your Day

by Brittiney George

Every day, in multiple ways emotionally and physically, you are transitioning. 

The morning alarm begins your sprint.  While you were sleeping your phone was loading up with new offers, information, suggestions, and requests.  Life’s runaway train came beckoning to you and you purchased your ticket.  Your mind careens through your calendar at breakneck speed, twisting, turning, sidestepping, rushing, until the inevitable crash at the end of the day leaves the body feeling wrung out and exhausted. 

It is afterall, your body and your nervous system that have been taking the hits of a pressurized life. When their warning signs go unheeded, your system eventually shuts down to conserve the energy and oxygen it needs to survive.  It makes it hard to feel like you can really “show up” anywhere. Your head is still in the problems of the day even if your body is at home.

Herein lies the value of transitional ceremonies.  Clear opening and closings in transitions let clarify expectations so your brain and body are not firing on all cylinders all day. The ceremony doesn’t have to big, loud, or long, just intentional.  Here are some ideas:
Power of the Pause (Arrive before you Engage):
Pause when you get in your car, pull into work, in between clients, or before the next task.  It can be as quick as a single breath.  Give yourself the gift of time to land where you are, see your surroundings, and to let your body and brain get in the same conversation.

Scent Signaling (The Nose Knows):
The nose is a powerful ally to use in transition and one of the quickest ways to shifts states.  You can clear the head with the scent of coffee beans, or find your favorite aromatherapy oil.  Suggestion: Keep a few scents specific to the place you use them in.  Ex.  If you have a scent you use to transition into your home, don’t also use it when you get to work.  It is best to keep that scent to only your home space so there is a clear message in your body when you smell it of “I am home” which allows your nervous system to organize differently.

Rinse and Release:
Wash off your day.  A full shower or just rinsing from your elbows to your hands will work.  Imagine the water is washing off any stuck stress or energy that you want to release and easily and effortlessly going down the drain.


Sing, Sigh, or Shake:
Research shows that humming and singing create ease in the nervous system thanks to our vagus nerve.  Not a singer or a hummer, let yourself sigh or let your body move to the music.  The body loves gentle rhythmic motion, so go ahead and shake it out!


Bless the Space:
A blessing or mantra can help you connect to the intention of the space your stepping in to.  These can be a quote or poem that resonates for you, or a simple statement of a wish such as created when completing one of the statements below.
May I….
May you…..
and together May we…


Opening and Closing Ceremonies:
There is a reason the Olympics spend so much time on the opening and closing ceremonies.  We love ceremony, because how things begin and end matter to us as a culture. Create opening and closing ceremonies for your regular daily transitions.  It may be a prayer, a blessing, writing out a quick gratitude list, listening to the same song, or writing in your journal. 

If the intention is clear and the practice is consistent, over time your body gets the message quickly that ties to it and is therefore able to reregulate your nervous system and in a sense depressurize.  You’re not meant to live in a pressure cooker, or to carry everyone and everything around with you in your body all day.  Honor yourself by honoring your transitions.  Your body and brain will thank you for it!

Brittiney George, BS, CST-PRO, ICI, CEIM, is a Movement Practitioner and Somatic Therapist specializing in Transformative Touch.  She is also faculty member of The Somatic Therapy Center.  Her areas of specialty include working with highly sensitive woman, and people that are feeling stuck or immobilized in their everyday lives.  She co-leads a monthly workshop series called Connection, Expression and Movement and also teaches gentle, exploratory movement classes at The Resiliency Center. For a free 55 min. introductory Somatic Therapy sessio, contact Brittiney at 610-389-7866 or movebackintolife@gmail.com.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Becoming what I might be


by Karen Steinbrecher

Reflecting on this month’s theme of letting go, I am reminded of a quote by Lao Tzu who said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Bill Douglas, Co-Founder of World TaiChi and QiGong day, recently shared his observation that when some students discover the reality that they are “a flawed wandering human being on this earthly plane,” they think TaiChi and QiGong don’t work and wonder, “Why bother?” He remarked that being a teacher of QiGong can be difficult because students often form idealized versions of their teachers. And, as with all idealized versions of anything, disappointment inevitably follows. Students learn that the teacher is a human being walking on the same Earth with the same journey of life as they are. We are all working through life lessons. In one setting, I am the teacher. In another, you are. Much of the time, our teaching and learning happen simultaneously. As Ram Dass says, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

TaiChi and QiGong and meditation ultimately require “letting go” to be done well, fully present in the moment. Look at the great Masters doing QiGong and TaiChi; they appear to be “unhinged and liquid”, says Douglas. This is not a technical skill as much as a whole soul surrender on the deepest level mentally, emotionally, and physically. In QiGong, we call this level of deep surrender “the sinking.” 

Douglas defines the sinking as “this exquisite, all encompassing love that the world and universe are made of, this energy that is the quantum field from which ALL emerges”. This beautiful, radiant energy is what awaits when we let go of our grip on things. As Douglas writes, surrender “asserts itself in subtle silken ways.” The impulse to “hold on” - to the known, the familiar, the comfortable, the idealized teacher, the old ideas of who we are and how the world should be - is so strong. But the rewards of letting go are profound. The “sinking” has a richness to it that is worth the discomfort of loosening our grip. The practice of QiGong and TaiChi may appear physical in nature, but the positive ripple is pervasive throughout all aspects of our lives. Learning to let go through QiGong helps us move - in every facet of our lives - with greater freedom and peace. 

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Thursday, September 12, 2019

Letting Go


by Trudy Gregson, MS, LPC

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.” - Tao Te Ching

Who hasn't struggled with letting go at one time or another? Cleaning out a closet and letting go of old favorites that don’t fit or aren’t your style anymore. Letting go of expectations - yours or someone else’s - to be the parent, partner, friend, daughter or son you’re “supposed” to be. Or letting go of a wish that something outside of your control can be different.  Maybe you’ve noticed it as feeling “stuck”, or perhaps it’s a little voice in the back of your head, or a good friend advising, “Let it go.” We know we should, so why is it so hard?
           
There are as many reasons why it’s hard as there are reasons for letting go: fear of judgment or regret, fear of failure, fear of the unknown, to name a few. Holding on can feel safe and familiar, while the notion of letting go may be fraught with fear or anxiety. It can feel like a tug-of-war as we weigh our options, ask for advice, ruminate.
           
So there we are, stuck in this tug-of-war, neither side letting go. How do we get “unstuck”? Perhaps it seems counterintuitive, but letting go requires us to move towards the fear or anxiety. It’s your fear, unique to you, and your fear can’t actually hurt you. So rather than “letting go” of fear, I invite you to welcome it by tuning in to what you’re noticing as you think about letting go. Maybe it’s a feeling in your stomach, or your chest, or your head, or more of an “all over” sensation. Maybe an image comes to mind, or a memory. Instead of labeling it as unpleasant and pushing it away or trying to shut it down, take a few deep breaths and see if you can be present with it, accepting that it’s here, and noticing what it needs you to know.
           
Your feelings about letting go are simply trying to get your attention, like the monster that lurks under a child’s bed when it’s time to surrender to sleep. How can a child sleep with a monster under the bed? So the parent dutifully checks under the bed, in the closet, in the corners and says, “There’s no monster.” The parent uses monster spray, just to be sure. When the parent is finished attending to the monster, does the child really believe there’s definitely no monster in the room? Probably not, but the child’s fears feel heard. The parent knows about the monster now, too. The child isn’t experiencing it alone. Maybe there is a monster, but the parent is there with the child, just down the hall.
           
We can be with the monsters that get in the way of letting go without them overpowering us. We don’t need to persuade them, just to listen. Once they feel our presence and feel heard, they tend to loosen their grip. You don’t let go of feelings, they let go of you. Then you can let go of old beliefs or behaviors, creating space for new possibilities, new opportunities, and new beliefs that fit who you really are. 

Trudy Gregson is a Licensed Professional Counselor who works with adults experiencing depression and anxiety, relationship issues, life transitions, grief and loss. Trudy brings mindfulness practice to her work with her clients to help them cultivate compassion for themselves and create the space for change. Trudy offers a free 30-minute phone consultation and can be reached at trudygregsontherapy@gmail.com or 267-652-1732.

AHO!


by Elizabeth Campbell, MS, LPC, RPT-S

“Ahooooooooo!”  I had no idea what this phrase means, but it seemed like everyone around me was feeling great as they said it very loudly.  Almost a decade ago, I went on a yoga retreat called the Art of Letting Go in Mexico with Maura Manzo, yoga teacher extraordinaire and cofounder of Yoga Home in Conshohocken.  It was a combination of yoga, meditation, and local shamanic rituals.  One of those rituals was a Temezcal, or a sweat lodge.  It sounds worse than it is.  It basically was a long meditation in a hot little hut with aromatherapy.  You go through several stages of releasing, ending in a metaphorical rebirth.  One of those stages is making noise.  People all around me were screaming and yelling, “Aho” as I sat in the back of the hut, frozen and silent.  I left. 

In that moment, nothing felt scarier than expressing what I needed to release.  There is so much vulnerability in seeing and expressing our feelings, even if it is in a nonverbal catharsis. I needed way more safety than what was present in my system in that moment. I didn’t know all of the people in the group well; I was sitting in the back of the hut between two especially expressive and vocal yogis, and my senses and emotions were overwhelmed.  We need strategies to cope with the overwhelming impact of freeing our emotions, and we have to feel safe in order to let go.  This can be particularly hard if open communication wasn’t the norm in our early lives or if prior attempts to express ourselves were met with confusion, disdain, apathy, or anger. If it was unsafe to communicate feelings in the past, it can be all the more challenging to express them now.

Releasing long held emotional baggage can also connect us with deep feelings of grief and loss.  What do we have if we let go of the things that take up so much of us?  It is important to honor this loss and the feelings that come along with it.  Even if we do not particularly like what we are holding onto, our pain is part of us and may feel like it makes us who we are.  Letting go may feel like losing our roots, our very foundation. So it is vital that we find ways to ground ourselves – in our bodies and to the solidness of the earth.

Of course, none of this was going through my head during my sweat lodge experience.  I was in complete nervous system activation – and flight let me protect myself.  The following year I returned to the same retreat and the same dreaded sweat lodge.  The retreat really was lovely and I was determined to face my fears and release everything I was holding onto.  I spent the year connecting and building my yogi community, including those on the trip and the leaders.  I consciously chose to sit near the exit in case I felt claustrophobic or overwhelmed.  I continuously focused on feeling the ground beneath me and the wall supporting my back.  The safety and grounding that I established were enough to give way to the vulnerability of release and the wonderful freedom that it brought.  And I screamed my head off.  Aho!!

Elizabeth Campbell is a Licensed Profession Counselor who provides empowerment and strength-based support to individuals in personal growth and change.  She specializes in play therapy with children, family therapy, creative counseling for adolescents, and trauma-informed treatment for all ages using an integrative, mindful approach to address the whole individual and promote healing. If you would like to connect with Elizabeth, reach out at elizabeth@elizabethcampbellcounseling.com or 610-757-8163 or learn more at www.elizabethcampbellcounseling.com.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Seeking Spaciousness at Summer’s End


by Elizabeth Venart

No matter our age, summer often registers in our system as “play time.” We are more likely to spend our time outdoors, take vacations, attend outdoor concerts, and stay up late.  And the month of September – Labor Day specifically – often marks the end of this time of recreation. Schedules fill up and the demands on our time grow. We feel the tug to return to “life as normal”. Darker, cooler days ahead, we retreat more and more indoors, losing some of the spaciousness of summer.

So that begs the question – How do you feel about your home? We react to the decreased sunlight – yes – but we may also be reacting to a weightiness we feel when we spend increased time inside the four walls of our home. Does your home feel warm and welcoming? Does it feel like a sanctuary? Are you able to rest and play comfortably in your home? Or does it feel stifling, more like a prison of expectations and shoulds, unfinished projects, old memories, and clutter?  
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      
One of the things I love about my work as a counselor is helping people find spaciousness inside, identify what truly resonates in their lives, and make choices to let go of what no longer serves them. Perhaps this is why I have become a tad addicted to the Netflix show, Tidying up with Marie Kondo. Marie is a Japanese Cleaning Consultant who wrote the book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and her show helps people create lives of deeper love, connection, and joy – through the process of tidying. When we tune into our experience of joy and arrange our homes in a way that highlights this joy, everything we see has a positive emotional resonance for us. “Focusing solely on throwing things away can only bring unhappiness,” Marie Kondo explains. “We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.” Through the KonMari process, she invites us to take each item in our hands and ask ourselves, “Does this spark joy?” and if it does, keep it. If it does not, thank it for the role it has played in our lives – and then let it go.

On her television show, some participants express confusion initially about what Marie means by “sparking joy,” but once they get the sense of it, the clearing begins to move more quickly and more easily. It is so individual – and purely subjective (although I’ve never seen anyone keep a ripped, thread-bare t-shirt). An item that resonates with one person won’t resonate for another – which is why we can never successfully clear clutter for anyone else. Happily, when we release items, we create the possibility they can spark joy for someone new.

Marie Kondo invites us to listen to and honor our heart’s desire. Like in my work, this process of deeply listening to oneself can be truly transformative. Embarking on the KonMari process myself – and talking with friends and clients who have done it – the overwhelming response is one of gratitude, a feeling of lightness, and an increase in energy. People also comment on the positive ripple effect in their lives. The practice of tidying not only helps us create spaciousness and joy in our homes, it also helps us tune into ourselves – the inner compass of our intuition – to assess what resonates and doesn’t in all aspects of our lives. What hobbies and habits nourish – and drain? What relationships feed us? Which don’t?

Taking the time to connect and be this honest with ourselves can bring up some real discord – within ourselves and with the people in our lives who may have certain expectations of how and who we should be. My work as a counselor involves helping people come home to themselves – with acceptance, self-compassion, and deep appreciation for their many facets. The internal changes made in our work together reflect outwardly and impact family, friends, and workplace relationships. Usually these relationships are strengthened. But is also becomes clear when others’ values and one’s own are at odds.

As older generations pass away, many objects may be passed down. Some may spark joy – connecting us to fond memories and having a place of honor in our china cabinets and on our walls. But many may also bring a weight of obligation, a heaviness, a tug to the past that pulls us away from the vibrancy of the present moment. We may feel an obligation to hold onto our grandmother’s china, father’s cufflinks, or uncle’s rifle because they loved it, even though we know we don’t.

When letting go is challenging, unprocessed grief and endings that feel unfinished are often at the root. It is unsettling when relationships haven’t had the closure we felt we needed at the time – whether because of conflict, death, divorce, or disconnection. I recently had a conversation with Natalia Volz, author of Passing through Grief about this. She reflected, “Before we can let go or move on, it is important to take some time to examine all that relationship meant to us, to clean up unfinished communication, and to say goodbye to what was. It does not mean we forget. It simply means clean it up so that we do not get stuck in the past painful feelings. We carry forward all of the relationship and the ways it made us who we are today because of it.”

Similarly, Marie Kondo writes, “It is not our memories but the person we have become because of those past experiences that we should treasure. This is the lesson keepsakes teach us when we sort them. The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past.”

Reflecting on the uplift in mood possible from something as simple as a vase of fresh-cut flowers, imagine a whole home – and a whole life – that truly resonates. Our home can be a place of peace, inspiration, comfort, and happiness. Michelangelo said he carved away everything that was not the sculpture, as the beauty of the sculpture was hidden, waiting patiently inside the stone. Like Michelangelo and his stone, when we carve away all that does not spark joy, we free what waits inside us, yearning to have a more central role in our lives.

Surrounded by objects we select with intention and love, our time indoors this fall and winter can bring happiness, comfort, a sense of spaciousness, resonance, and ease. We live our lives in the present moment, and, in a home that nourishes us and supports us in exploring what has us curious today, our time indoors can be as relaxing, enjoyable, and fun as summer.

Elizabeth Venart is the Founder of The Resiliency Center. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified EMDR Therapist, and EMDRIA-Approved Consultant who specializes in providing counseling and mentorship to other therapists. Trained in laughter yoga and Internal Family Systems, she loves working to empower Highly Sensitive Persons to heal the wounds of the past so that they can embrace their gifts more fully and experience greater joy. Learn more at www.elizabethvenart.com or by contacting her at ElizabethLPC@comcast.net.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Why Writing Together Can Seem Magical


by Rachel Kobin

The "perfect" writer sits down in front of their laptop at five in the morning, admires the sunrise over their duck pond, and proceeds to tap out thousands of words. These words represent essential sections of their latest masterpiece for which their editor waits with gleeful anticipation. The rest of their day balances self-care activities like exercise and meditation with creativity-enriching jaunts to readings, art openings, and live concerts.
These romanticized writers may exist, but when I asked local writers to e-mail me about how being a part of a writers' community had impacted them, Eric Jacobs, a writer in my own workshop said, "I am not the kind of person who can get up early and set aside an hour a day every day to write. At least not yet.  Probably never. But I know that with the workshop there will be at least one night when I can block out everything else and devote my full attention to writing. Willingly, I am a captive audience." Like most writers, Eric has a full-time job and social responsibilities. Based on my observations and the responses I received to questions I asked local writers about how becoming part of a writing group impacting them, not having enough time is the simplest challenge writers face.
As an act of self-expression, writing evokes feelings of vulnerability. Often, prior experiences in educational or professional settings have left emotional scars. Remarking on his decision to join the Ambler Writers' Group, Robert Wright coined a fabulous phrase for the self-doubt that plagues us all: "…I was unsure of my writing and my choice to write. The chattering monkeys played havoc with me then. Occasionally they still do." At various points along their journey, most writers face these “chattering monkeys.” Clearly, Robert made the right decision because since joining the group he has made a lot of made friends and completed an MA in English and Creative Writing. Everyone who wrote to me reported that joining a writing community boosted their self-confidence. As Maureen Fielding, a member of a group in Lansdowne, said, "Participating in the group and conferences has made me feel more 'legitimate.' That is, I don't have that sense of not being a 'real' writer just because I didn't get my novel published." Maureen has published several poems, and Christine DiJulia, a member of the same group and others, said, "Hearing others' challenges to write and publish, and more so, learning that their work was accepted for publication is inspiration to continue on."
If finding a community plays such an important role in boosting writers’ self-confidence, what is it, exactly, that happens in a healthy group that facilitates these experiences? Several people who responded to my questions said they had joined a group or found a workshop during a transitional period in their lives, either going through voluntary and involuntary career changes or hitting a rough spot in their lives when they needed to take stock and shift directions. I was moved by Vicki Marklew's account of what happened when she first took a Tuesday Night Writers session with The Philadelphia Writers’ Workshop (PWW). Her experience so closely echoed my own as a new participant in Alison Hick’s workshop in Havertown. Vicki said, "The first couple of weeks were terrifying – everyone could spin such gorgeous phrases and ideas out of the ether, while I felt like a wordless lump…" Vicki continued to describe her first workshop with a word I hesitated to use without corroborating sources. She said, "Then something magical happened—a prompt that triggered an image, and suddenly I was reading my words out loud to 12 near-strangers who were all laughing gleefully. It was a truly life-changing moment. I drove home feeling exhilarated, energized, and bursting with ideas. It honestly felt like a dam had burst, and I started to see the world, and myself, in a new light."
Vicki's story confirmed that even more than providing a time and place for all things writing-related, something magical happens when the presence of the other people and their collective positive energy allows the writer in each of us to emerge. As another PWW alumna, Heather Emens Rudalavage wrote, "…I found the most supportive group of adults I have ever known. Even when my own harsh inner critic is telling me my writing is terrible, this group magically finds the gem in the rough. Their kindness has brought me to tears on more than one occasion." Heather's words revealed another component of writing together that makes the experience seem magical: compassion. When a writer receives feedback that buoys their confidence, the actual magic comes from how the group’s positive energy allows the hidden writer in each person to emerge. As other writers in the group respond with empathy and compassion, each member of the group becomes less critical of their own writing and of themselves.
On the other end of the spectrum, receiving inappropriate, destructive feedback can easily shut us down. Rosalind Kaplan with whom I had the pleasure of writing in Alison Hick’s workshop, had shown her manuscript to one person she respected who dismissed it outright. She put the manuscript in a drawer until years later when we encouraged her to keep working on it. Eventually, she found an agent and published her memoir, The Patient in the White Coat, her riveting story of being a physician who contracted Hepatitis C from an accidental needle stick while working during a period when the disease was incurable and carried a considerable stigma.
Reading and hearing others’ writing plays an equally vital role in this cycle of expanding kindness. In The Atlantic magazine article “The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling," Dan Dilistraty wrote, "Storytelling, especially in novels, allows people to peek into someone's conscience to see how other people think. This can affirm our own beliefs and perceptions, but more often, it challenges them. Psychology researcher Dan Johnson recently published a study in Basic and Applied Social Psychology that found reading fiction significantly increased empathy towards others, especially people the readers initially perceived as "outsiders" (e.g. foreigners, people of a different race, skin color, or religion)." While participants in local groups do not exclusively write fiction, my observations and the responses to my questions confirm Johnson's finding that reading stories develops empathy toward others. The live, interactive quality of these groups encourages writers to stretch such that they and their writing gain a deeper understanding of "outsiders" experiences. As another PWW participant Eric Jacobs wrote, the people in the workshop have "…unique points of view far different from my own.  For example, recently, one of the writers in the group, when critiquing my writing, commented that my description of a woman in a fiction story as "classically beautiful" was a real turnoff. This was great feedback and something that I would likely have not discovered on my own." Based on what he learned, Eric went back to make revisions with energy and enthusiasm. Like many others from all of the local writers' groups, several of his revised stories have been published.
Whether a writer's work is published or shared only with their writers' community, several sources, including the article in The Atlantic confirm that telling stories helps the storyteller and the reader understand their own lives. Nick Pipitone, a PWW alumnus and founder of a Meetup group called “DelcoWriters” said being in workshops and writing communities "…has also made me more humble and realistic about my own writing abilities. It made me realize that there are so many of out there with dreams and aspirations, and the real goal of writing for me has become to share a story that may inspire someone or make them think. So, in other words, it has made writing less of an ego-feeding thing for me, and more about sharing a part of myself with others. Being in workshops and communities is so fun because you get to meet so many talented people from different walks of life and you get a little glimpse into their inner selves by what they share with the group."
As writers learn from their group leaders how to give and receive useful feedback, they are, essentially, learning how to feel and express empathy.  In turn, this empathy strengthens our emotional resilience by helping us develop strong interpersonal relationships. As Robert Wright wrote, "I have received a number of blessings meeting writers through the group: camaraderie, friends, sounding boards and honesty." At some point, all writers have to sit down in front of their laptops and tap out hundreds or thousands of words, revise, edit, and dare to show our work to someone. I'm confident that even the solitary writers with duck ponds who write every day and persist despite a plethora of literary disappointments have a date circled on their calendar marking the next meeting of their writers' group.
Rachel Kobin has over twenty years of experience writing in a variety of professional settings. She founded The Philadelphia Writers Workshop in 2011 and continues to lead creative writing workshops at The Resiliency Center.  She works with writers privately as a coach and editor to help them make their final drafts as brilliant as their original ideas.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Coping with postpartum depression


by Kim Vargas, LCSW

Jessica walked into my office in a sundress with her hair and makeup done. [For the purposes of illustrating key points, a fictitious client has been created.] She smiled and spoke in a calm, warm tone. Had I not had a phone conversation with her the day before where she detailed her reasons for making the appointment, I would never have guessed that this woman was suffering deeply. To look at Jessica, you would wouldn’t have known that she was terrified to be alone with her baby; that she wasn’t sleeping at all because she was so anxious that her baby would stop breathing if he wasn’t constantly monitored; that she felt hopeless and filled with despair almost all of the time; that she sometimes wondered if her baby would be better off without her; that she spent most of the day crying as soon as her partner left for the workday. To look at Jessica, you would never have known she was in the throes of postpartum depression.

Jessica’s mother told her that she was just suffering from the baby blues, and that all new moms go through a tough stretch. Her mom told her she just needed to get out of the house more, spend time in the sun, and pull herself together. For three months after her son was born, Jessica suffered in silence, and told herself that she was a terrible mom for not feeling joyful about her new baby. She was fearful that her baby would be taken away if she revealed the truth, so she made sure to act upbeat at her six week postpartum check-up.
As it turned out, Jessica was one of the 1 in 7 women who struggle with postpartum depression.
Luckily, Jessica had a sister-in-law who had previously suffered from postpartum depression (PPD), and knew to ask Jessica important questions about her mood and coping. Had that not been the case, Jessica could easily have fallen into the 50% of women who are never diagnosed (and consequently never get help) with postpartum mood disorders.
Women suffering from untreated PPD are more likely to develop Major Depressive Disorder down the road. They may have more difficulty bonding with their baby. These moms often have lower self esteem. Their babies may experience language delays, have more difficulty with self regulation, and experience depression themselves later in childhood.
Postpartum depression is more likely to occur in parents with a baby who spends time in the NICU, parents who experience complications at birth, parents with a history of depression, parents with a high needs infant, and/or parents with a lack of social, emotion, and financial supports.
It is worth noting that it is not only biological mothers that suffer from PPD. 1 in 10 fathers experience depression in the postpartum period. Adoptive and foster parents are also at risk. Because these parents did not give birth to the child, they sometimes feel unjustified in their depression, and are therefore unlikely to mention the feelings to anyone.
The good news is that there are many wonderful options for treatment and healing. Many parents find immediate relief in working with a therapist trained in postpartum issues. These professionals can validate and normalize the thoughts and feelings, make concrete suggestions for behavioral modifications, and assist new parents in finding resources to help manage new parenthood. Sometimes just being “allowed” to say the deepest, darkest thoughts and fears in a confidential setting lifts a tremendous burden.
Many women find that talking to their doctor about their mood enables the doctor to prescribe medication that helps manage the feelings. Doctors knowledgeable in postpartum issues may be able to prescribe a medication that is compatible with breast feeding, as that is often a concern for new parents.
Support groups offer an opportunity to connect with other new parents in a safe setting filled with individuals at a similar life stage. Sometimes parents benefit from hearing someone else speak a familiar thought, feeling, or fear. Likewise, joining local baby-centric activities connects new parents to each other, and offers a structured activity outside of the house. For breastfeeding mothers, attending a breastfeeding support group and/or getting the support of a lactation consultant can be extremely beneficial in making the breastfeeding process smoother and more comfortable, physically and emotionally.
Asking for help from friends, family, and/or paid professionals, especially in the very beginning, can go a long way toward allowing the new parents to heal. Because lack of sleep is often a contributing factor to postpartum depression, having someone else wake up with the baby some of the time may improve mood quickly.
The bottom line is that there is an extraordinary amount of help, support, and resources for people suffering from postpartum issues. Because postpartum mood disorders can develop any time during pregnancy, and up to a year following the birth of a child, it is imperative to know the signs and symptoms, and to seek help immediately.

Kim Vargas, LCSW has been a psychotherapist for over 19 years. She specializes in working with individuals and couples navigating the various stages of parenthood (including the journey to become parents). She is especially passionate about working with new parents surrounding issues of postpartum depression, anxiety, and identity. Kim can be reached at kimvargastherapy@gmail.com or 267-568-7846.
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Monday, May 20, 2019

21st Century Wellness on College Campuses


by Tracey A. Smith

June is a month for graduations and the start of summer. For parents getting ready to send their High School Seniors off to college – or to send older students back to campus for another year this August – you may have a lot of questions about how you can best assure your child’s well-being when they are no longer living at home. If you are a student trying to choose the right college campus setting, you may be curious about how universities are similar and different in addressing your wellness and promoting positive wellbeing. We may have heard a lot about stressors and challenges facing students on college campuses all over the country but less about programs specifically geared to support students with these challenges. You may be asking … how does a university address college students’ needs while upholding their mission and values? What resources or strategies does the university have in place that can assist with college students’ well-being? What opportunities will there be for college students to grow in their self-care?

What's happening on university and colleges campuses these days? Quite often you will find that student health, wellness and recreation centers are the hub for student health and engagement. Most universities provide a holistic approach to campus living, working, and learning. For many students, this may be their first time living away from home. For some, it will be their first time independently exercising life, problem-solving and decision-making skills. The Wellness programs and activities found on college campuses support students in making positive behavioral and lifestyle changes.

Universities’ comprehensive health and wellness services will include programs geared to support students in areas such as:
·      alcohol & substance abuse
·      healthy relationships, including information about dating violence
·      women and men’s health, including sexual health
·      managing anxiety and depression
·      nutrition, finances, and tools for life after graduation
·      managing stress and anger

Most college campuses include free counseling services for students. This is an important resource to support students in navigating the many changes and challenges they face during this time of transition. In addition to counseling services, academic advisors, professors, and residence life staff can provide additional support.

I have the unique opportunity to be a Life Coach on a college campus. It is a very rewarding experience, being employed by a university that values health and wellbeing. The service allows me the opportunity to help students navigate the college experience from freshman year to senior year. I assist the students in all areas of wellness, not just academic (intellectual wellness), but the whole student (emotional, spiritual, interpersonal, and physical). I am able to witness tremendous growth and development as students find their way in living their lives on their own terms. It is energizing to coordinate and provide programs that encourage this transformation.

Universities experience many challenges in light of the high levels of stress impacting our society. Challenges to academic success can include finances, poor sleep, unhealthy relationships, unhealthy and addictive use of social media, depression, anxiety, poor nutrition, trauma, and family issues. There is hope. It is encouraging to observe greater engagement of students in health and wellness programming that supports their needs. Below are some practices that have been documented to support healthy living on campuses.

Students First  
Student-driven programs and activities work the best. Students have formed Wellness Ambassador and Peer Education Groups and have designed and implemented special events from physical challenge activities and “healthy campus” weeks to mindfulness activities. The use of Health and Wellness Surveys can provide staff with vital information about student interests and needs.

Collaboration 
Calling All Practitioners! Most universities draw upon the expertise of outside health practitioners in order to provide additional wellness services and speaking engagements. This can include wellness education, counseling, yoga, trauma informed services, health education, and spirituality.

Campuses often offer a multitude of services, organizations, and events that can be used to support wellness. These can include student health services, campus life programs, student organizations, athletics, dietary services, career services, environmental services, disability offices, and LGBTQ/diversity groups. Collaboration may also appear as an intergenerational program that includes employees, students, community members and the online community. Thinking broader, collaboration may include linking with larger nonprofit agencies such as Michele Obama’s Partnership for Healthy Campus Initiative https://www.ahealthieramerica.org and National Consortium for Building Healthy Academic Communities https://healthyacademics.organd the
American Cancer Society https://www.cancer.org/.

Community Integration
Developing community partnerships is the key. This enables you to provide more comprehensive health and wellness services. Most colleges have strong alliances with outside healthcare agencies that help them to best meet the needs of students, staff, and faculty.

In conclusion, college campuses provide young people with the information, strategies, and supports that can serve as the foundation for a lifetime of healthy life practices, relationships, and resiliency. We can encourage students to make connections, access the services available, and experiment with new wellness practices can empower them to launch into the world as happy, healthy, and resilient adults. Ultimately, this benefits young people and also their families, friends, coworkers, and the communities in which they live.

Tracey A. Smith, M,Ed., CTRS, owner of Wellness W.R.K.S. LLC is a Certified Recreational Therapist, Wellness Lifestyle Management Educator, and Trainer. She is also a Life Coach at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Enthusiastically, she provides wellness education programs, workshops, trainings, conferences & retreats to companies, schools and community organizations to promote self-care and well-being. She specializes in Workplace Wellness and team-building for remote employees. To learn more about Tracey and how you can bring her creative, experiential workshops and consultations to your agency or business, contact her at tracey@wellnesswrksllc.com or 215-605-3221 or visit her website [Insert link to: https://www.wellnesswrksllc.com/].