Thousands of years ago, our ancestors had larger foreheads, less comfy living quarters and a whole different set of things to be worried about. The tingling sensation and heightened awareness that occurred when you were about to be mauled by a mammoth, could potentially be lifesaving. Having your nervous system on high alert or as it is sometimes known “fight or flight,” can provide many added benefits, if you are in a perilous situation. Your senses are heightened, adrenaline flows through your system, you become stronger, more alert, faster, all things which can help you to escape physical harm.
In modern society, we are likely better served being worried about our email inbox as opposed to being some larger animal’s lunch. However, there are still remnants of our more primitive brain which exist today. Most of these are close to the brain stem and deal with our more base emotions, such as anger and anxiety. This is not to say that being worried about something does not still serve a purpose, it does. We can channel that energy to meet deadlines, improve our performance, and perform well in times of stress. In the way that most people’s brain works, after the time of heightened stress or imminent danger has passed, the brain returns to its normal state. However, if you suffer from anxiety, this is not always the case. The brain can continue to send out the signal that you are in danger, causing you to be constantly on edge.
So, what causes this misfire in the brain? Why do some people feel as though they are constantly anxious about something, no matter how inconsequential it might seem? The culprit is a tiny almond-shaped area in the brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for sending out an “alert” to the rest of your brain (and ultimately your entire body) that you are in danger. Recent neurological research has suggested that some people inherently have an over-active amygdala, almost like a twitchy trigger finger, that fires at inappropriate times.
Another factor is what people themselves interpret as being a potentially dangerous situation, based on their personality. If you are an introverted person who prefers to spend time by themselves or with one or two close friends, the idea of a cocktail party might seem like the end of the world. Or, if you are afraid of spiders, seeing a harmless small spider might feel as though it is a threat to your well-being.
The good news for people who suffer from anxiety is that there are several options to help alleviate your symptoms. Therapy has been shown to be very effective in helping to manage anxiety. The act of processing your anxieties and becoming more conscious of them can help to override your amygdala. Medication, when warranted, can also help.
If you have any questions about anxiety, or know someone who is suffering from it, don’t hesitate to contact me. Don’t suffer needlessly! Unless you are being pursued by a wooly mammoth, in which case, feel free to be nervous. Otherwise, take the first steps towards living a more comfortable and relaxed life.
Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org
Today's college students face difficulties that are very different from even just a few years ago. Dealing with things such as: homesickness, sleep problems, social challenges, anxiety, depression, and new levels of stress. One of the biggest challenges, however, is navigating through relationships. Many people will have their first significant relationship in college. This is true not only for romantic relationships, but social ones as well. Therefore, this is a time where many people are exploring new grounds for themselves in relation to others. It can be a wonderful time for self- discovery, it can also be an extremely difficult time in terms of maintaining healthy self-esteem. Many people are so focused on relationships at this point in their life, that they tends to lose focus on themselves. Sometimes it can be easier to define ourselves via someone else and their opinion, than our own sense of self. To some extent, we all do this. However, there becomes a point at which this becomes unhealthy. If someone is looking for validation almost exclusively through external sources, this is an approach that is bound to fail. It is important to develop a solid internal sense of oneself in order to be able to fall back on that when we feel that others are not meeting our needs.
Therapy is a wonderful tool for strengthening your sense of self, and understanding more deeply how you relate to others. if wondering about how you fit in occupies your thoughts, or keeps you up at night, a good place to start is examining yourself more deeply. Once you have done this, the relationships that are right for you will gravitate towards you. All of the effort that you are currently expanding, will become no longer necessary. If you have questions around how therapy can help you with this, feel free to contact me.
Photo courtesy of www.youthvoices.net
One of the most significant things that keeps people from coming to therapy is that they feel as though they are going to be judged, seen as weird, or simply not understood by someone else. This has always struck me as something that is very unfortunate. Our sense of what other people think of us can be one of the most damaging things to our self-esteem, and often times can cause significant anxiety or depression. Where does this sense of what is normal come from? Has anyone ever even really met a completely normal person? Why do we feel that we need to define ourselves via what we perceive as someone else's perception? When we look closely at our physical senses, science tells us that they are not entirely reliable. This is true of things that are as seemingly objective as our sight and our hearing. If this is the case, how can we think that we know what other people are thinking with any reasonable degree of certainty?
Since we were small children, we've been told that each one of us fits inside a particular designation, a particular group of people, and that we should behave in accordance with what is expected of us. Deviation from these expectations can cause people to be ostracized, bullied, or possibly even diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. Many people feel as though their struggles are unique to them, that there is no way that anyone would understand what things are like for them. In some sense, this is true. We are all individuals with all of our own unique desires, needs, and wants. From a broader perspective, however, we are all involved in something known as the "human condition." Within this, we are all very much the same. Some of these similarities transcend race, culture, and even time. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung found in his work with tribal communities that there was a striking similarity with symbols that they used with symbols from the more Western world to identify things in dreams, religion, and expressions of life in general. Jung referred to this as a "collective unconscious" meaning that human beings seem to share many basic things underneath the surface level of our consciousness. In addition, they tended to express many of these things in the same way. The implications of this are profound, indeed. While it may seem difficult to imagine our struggles as human beings as being in some way similar to those of someone from ancient Egypt or tribal Africa, there are underlying properties deep within our unconscious minds that are the same.
One of the most healing properties of group therapy is the similarities that members share with each other. Many people are astonished when they go to a group at just how perfectly other members have described their difficulties. In my work with individuals I have also seen people be surprised that someone could accept them for who they are. No one should have to feel that they are alone. If people are telling you that you don't belong, it is because they fear something within themselves. If you feel as though you need a safe place to be accepted and explore things in your life, contact me and take the first step towards making things better.
Mandala photo courtesy of http://www.milos-art.de
“The mind acts like an enemy for those who don’t control it.”
"All his life has he looked away to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmmm? What he was doing. Hmph."
In recent years, there has been an exciting convergence between Eastern Philosophy and Western Neuroscience. The practice of Mindfulness has been shown in several studies to help with many kinds of distress. Personally, I have seen a great benefit to people who make use of Mindfulness to reduce their suffering from anxiety. One of the wonderful things about Mindfulness is its simplicity. A conscious effort to maintain focus on the present moment is all that is required. Much of the distress that results from anxiety comes from allowing the mind to ruminate over things that are often times out of our control. Thinking about where we are going to be, what we are going to be doing, how we are going to be doing it, etc., all cause the mind to become centered on the future. Staying in the present moment allows you to be focused on things that you have more control over. How you are walking, what you are eating, if you are smiling at the person that just walked by you, are all examples of being mindful.
We have a great deal more choice over what we choose to focus on than is immediately apparent. This is not to say that your brain will not become distracted or move rapidly from one idea to the next. It will. What is important is to recognize that your thoughts are elsewhere, gently take notice of it, and return your focus to the present moment. The word "exercise" is often used to describe Mindfulness activities This is an apt description. Neuroplasticity is a term that is used to describe your brain's ability to act like a muscle. Your brain is capable of forming new connections over time, literally re-wiring itself to more quickly access what areas are being focused on. So, if you focus on things like the present moment, or feeling empathy and compassion for other people, your brain will eventually begin to do this as more of a default than a conscious effort. These things do not happen overnight, obviously, but simply making the effort to be more aware of what you are doing in the present moment can very quickly divert your mind from more detrimental and anxiety-provoking thoughts.
If you are having anxiety which is adversely affecting your life, I can help you to make use of some very simple ways to change your thinking. This change can help you to overcome bad habits, negative emotions, and keep you grounded in the present moment.
If you have any questions around Mindfulness, Neuroplasticity, or anxiety, please feel free to contact me.
Cartoon courtesy of Don Addis. Photo courtesy of http://marcdeveraux.blogspot.com/2012/11/yoga-and-brain.html. Yoda photo courtesy of Star Wars Wiki
The number of children that have been diagnosed with and Autism Spectrum Disorder has risen dramatically in recent years. About ten years ago the number of children diagnosed with Autism was estimated to be 1 in 1000. Five years ago, that number rose to 1 in 500. Today, it is 1 in 88. There is a great deal of debate about the cause of this steep increase in diagnosis, from environmental factors to greater awareness, but one thing remains clear: parents, schools, peers and everyone in the community needs to develop a better understanding of Autism and how to best help, interact with, and empower those with the diagnosis to reach their fullest potential.
The symbol used for Autism awareness is that of a puzzle piece to represent the complexities that are involved with treating and understanding the disorder. To begin with, simply distinguishing the different types of Autism can be confusing. Autism disorders are referred to as a "spectrum" precisely because there exists such a wide range of functioning. Severe Autism refers to children who have severe learning disabilities and high needs as far as activities of daily living. They are often not able to be independent of their caregivers. Asperger's disorder, PDD (Pervasive Developmental Disorder) and high functioning Autism are at the opposite end of the spectrum and may often feature people who have extreme abilities in some areas, and/or high IQs. There exists a great deal of variance in functioning and symptoms in between these two ends of the spectrum.
Despite all of the degrees of difference in functioning of people with an autism diagnosis, there also exist significant general commonalities. People with Autism diagnoses will often exhibit many of the following characteristics:
-Sensory processing difficulties such as sensitivity to sounds, light, certain kinds of touch or clothes
-Difficulties tolerating changes in routine
-Symptoms of anxiety
-Extreme fascination with certain toys, books, tv shows, etc
-Inability to relate to others or interpersonal difficulties
-"Black and white" thinking (difficulty in tolerating ambiguity)
-Inappropriate laughing or crying
-Little or no eye contact
-Unresponsiveness to normal teaching methods at school
-Tantrums or extreme emotional responses for no apparent reason
There are many strategies which parents and schools can employ to help their child be more successful and make their own lives easier. The cartoon below from growingupwithautism.com is a great example of a picture schedule.
Check my resources page for more information around Autism Spectrum Disorders, or feel free to contact me.
Photo courtesy of http://theautismresearchfoundation.org/
Play has been recognized as important since the time of Plato (429-347 B.C.) who reportedly observed, “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Play therapy is a structured, theoretically based approach to therapy that builds on the normal communicative and learning processes of children. Play promotes feelings of happiness and well being as well as cognitive development. For children, however, play can be understood as even more vital. Play presents children and adults the opportunity to interact with one another, thus providing the language that is needed for children to communicate. When issues become so profound or confusing that words are difficult, play becomes even more important. Often, when children are given a new outlet for their difficult, confusing, or overwhelming feelings, their difficult behaviors will decrease. Children are also given what is called a “sense of mastery” over themselves and their emotions. This gives children a boost to their self esteem as they feel better equipped to deal with the world.
If you have questions around play therapy, please feel free to contact me.
Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship by Garry L. Landreth
Play Therapy Theory and Practice: Comparing Theories and Techniques by Kevin J. O'Connor
Photo courtesy of The Williams Institute
Does it ever seem like everything your child does has the sole purpose of making you crazy? Of course it does, you are a parent. Even the most well behaved child can have periods of defiance. When this behavior is consistent for long periods of time and markedly interferes with functioning, it is known as Oppositional Defiant Disorder. ODD is a pattern of disobedient, hostile, and defiant behavior toward authority figures. This disorder is more common in boys than in girls. Some studies have shown that it affects 20% of school-age children. However, most experts believe this figure is high due to changing definitions of normal childhood behavior. It is important to distinguish ODD from defiant behavior that is considered within a range of age-appropriateness when diagnosing a child with ODD.
Treatment for ODD is usually a combination of individual psychotherapy sessions for the child and parental meetings with a mental health professional in order to work on behavioral techniques. Medication is sometimes helpful to manage other co-occurring disorders such as ADHD or depression.
One important parenting strategy with children who have ODD (and also just in general), is remembering to "pick your battles." Children will not consistently conform to your ideas of what their behavior should look like. This is perhaps a massive understatement. Many times it seems as though the exact opposite of what you are asking is what children will do. One fun idea is to pretend that perhaps today is Opposite Day. "Don't you dare eat those vegetables!" Children will usually respond to this with some humor. This idea also allows you to keep some humor in a difficult situation. Your attitude and demeanor as a parent is extremely important. Not only to children mimic your behavior and moods, but these things are what you have the most control over.
A rule of thumb in picking your battles is to ask yourself if safety is a concern in what you are trying to have the child do (or not do). If the answer is yes, you of course have to stick to your guns and ride out any difficult behaviors and objections. If the answer is no, then perhaps you do not need the child to be doing exactly as they are told in that instance. You can certainly ask yourself the follow up question of how important adherence to your demand is to you personally. Every parent has a different set of values in this regard. Just remember that if you identify something as important to you, you have to be able to put in the time and energy of dealing with a potential push back from your child. It is critical to be consistent in your follow through.
If you have questions around ODD or parenting in general, feel free to contact me.
Your Defiant Child; 8 steps to Better Behavior, by Russell A. Barkley PhD ABPP ABCN and Christine M. Benton PhD (Hardcover - Oct. 6, 1998)
Photo courtesy of http://adoptive-parenting.adoptionblogs.com
Selective mutism (SM), is defined as a disorder of childhood characterized by an inability to speak in certain settings (e.g., at school, in public
places) despite speaking in other settings (e.g., at home with family). SM is associated with anxiety and may be an extreme form of social phobia.
The prevalence of SM is perhaps much more than one might expect. 1 in every 143 children are being diagnosed with SM. Usually the difference in speaking is noticed when children are attending kindergarten or first
grade as this is typically their first significant social experience outside of the house. There are often co-morbid (or co-existing) disorders that are commonly seen with SM such as social anxiety disorders or sensory integration disorders. Thus, when providing treatment for SM, a multidisciplinary approach is often very effective. Anti-anxiety medication in combination with therapies has also been shown to help achieve the desired results more quickly.
In working with many children who have a diagnosis of SM, one thing that has really stood out to me is the importance of not placing pressure on the child to speak. It can be difficult for parents and caregivers not to place pressure on the child to speak as it is expected in many situations. It also can be difficult to not "jump in" for the child and speak for them. The advice that I usually give around this is to give the child a few moments to try to respond on their own, and then explain that your child sometimes gets nervous. Most people are used to this to some degree, and will ideally shift their attention away.
The other common misconception is that the failure to speak in certain settings is a willful defiance or behavioral problem. While some children who have a diagnosis of SM have strong-willed personality types, the most significant reason for their not speaking is a result of a paralyzing anxiety. Research into some of the neurological reasons for SM has suggested that children who have the disorder have an overly active amygdala. The amygdala is a region of the brain that has a primary role in the processing of memory and emotions. When this limbic area of the brain is put on "alert," it sends out a signal to the rest of the body. This can affect breathing, movement, and emotional responses. The so-called "fight or flight" response is enacted. Thus, situations that are to some people essentially non-threatening (being out side the home, coming into contact with unfamiliar people, etc.) are viewed as a threat to one's well-being.
It is imperative that treatment for SM begin as soon as there is any evidence of its symptoms. Often the recognition happens around the time of the child first school-age experience. As children get older, the symptoms become more ingrained and the disorder is more difficult to treat.
If you have questions around SM, feel free to contact me.
BOOKS Helping Your Child With Selective Mutism: Steps to Overcome a Fear of Speaking By Charles E. Cunningham, Ph. D,
Melanie K. Vanier Why Dylan Doesn't Talk: A Real-Life Look at Selective Mutism Through the Eyes of a Child. By Carrie Bryson
Photo courtsey of sheknows.com
Stephen Quinlan is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker who practices in Dover, NH