Tools for healing. Find new ways to achieve inner peace.

Finding Connection in the Here and Now

One of the moments in life that brings me pure joy is to look into the eyes of an infant and with such perfect attunement they track me and smile back at me that toothless grin. Time passes with lots of funny faces, shrieks and giggles. Those kinds of moments could go on forever, yet the realities of my day pull me back into the business and messiness of life. The to do lists, the repairs, the work, the worries pull me out of the present and often into the future. Have you asked yourself lately am I living in the present moment?

I have worked with couples for many years and I observed in their rush to get to solutions they often missed opportunities to connect in the present moment. Feeling flooded with various emotions, one or the other’s mind was racing to figure out whose fault it was, how to protect themselves from the anticipated onslaught, or thinking, “Oh no, here we go again and what’s the point?” In these moments, they were not listening to their partner or seeking with curiosity to understand their point of view or acknowledging the emotion being expressed. Rather, they were flooded with thoughts from past failed attempts or fearing this negative outcome would be a predictor of their future together. The point is without even noticing it, they had exited the present moment going back to memories of the past or jumping ahead to worries about the future.

As a marriage and family therapist, I help couples slow down their dance around connection. They discover this whole new space in the present moment where vulnerability and empathy are powerful tools fueling connection and often healing past hurts or reassuring fears or insecurities. My first goal in treatment is to restore safety. If our amygdalas are too busy firing, then we exit our prefrontal cortex and go to three simple protective solutions: fight, flight or freeze.

If your partner is coming at you full force with criticism, it makes sense that you may feel defensive. If your partner ignores your bid for connection and leaves the room, then naturally over time you may feel rejected. If your partner shuts down, becomes overwhelmed and just doesn’t know what to do, you may feel lonely and long for a sense of team effort. One of the best solutions to these often-occurring challenges is to learn how to connect with our partner in the present while remembering to be respectful, share appreciation, and share feelings without casting blame.

The tool I most often share with my clients initially when asking them to practice living mindfully is to practice tuning into their five senses. Choosing an activity that you already do daily such as showering or brushing your teeth, practice at these moments tuning into your sense of taste, touch, smells, sight and sound. After spending a few minutes tuning into your senses, complete a body scan taking note of any sensations in your body. Label the feeling you have in the present moment such as, “I am feeling sad, overwhelmed or calm,” and then label the thought such as, “I am having the thought, ‘I am going to be late’,” or, “I am having the thought, ‘I have no friends’,” or “I am having the thought, ‘I am so smart why don’t they listen to me’.”

When parents become afraid for their child, often they are flooded with a series of thoughts containing “What Ifs.” The time and energy is spent on worrying about the child’s future and the precious moments of connection in the present are lost. Worrying about the future does little to help solve the problems as the problems you are worrying about have not actually occurred. Schedule time in your day to worry about the present problems, come up with measurable solutions and then let go of the problem until the scheduled time tomorrow. Be sure when considering solutions to make note if the focus is only on correction or control rather than on connection. Whether you choose to focus on your breath, practice meditation, go on a mindful walk or take time out to play and laugh together, you will find that living in the present moment brings an increased sense of peace and hope. When you find yourself in a relaxed state it is more likely for you be creative, find solutions and to connect in loving ways with your child.

Increasing your ability to live in the present moment takes practice. Those of us who take the time to practice, find that when we are in moments of distress or we are not connecting with our partner or child, we become increasingly aware of our own thoughts, feelings and actions and how those are impacting the other person. We then consciously make a choice to respond in new ways, communicate more clearly and effectively and enjoy increased moments of meaningful connection. I never said it would be easy but it is always worth it!

When Children Go Astray

The love between a parent and their child is long lasting. The relationship progresses through time beginning with bonding at birth, hours of care giving, and the slow development of a more meaningful relationship as time is spent getting to know each other as unique individuals. This love is strong and though it is possible, it is rather unlikely to be easily forgotten. The ancient prophet Isaiah in the Holy Bible highlights this bond with the question “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?” Life sometimes will throw us curve balls that just seem to come out of nowhere. It seems like it was just yesterday that our child was lovingly embracing us or climbing up on our knee and then there is a slammed door and massive distance. What happened? Like tornadoes, nature’s most violent storms can develop so rapidly there is little advanced warning, the bond between parent and child can be disrupted leaving emotional devastation in its wake.

Parents for a variety of reasons find that they have lost the precious connection with their child and are flooded with a whirlwind of emotions ranging from sadness, doubt, worry, hope, frustration, anger, despair, guilt, shame and especially FEAR. The crushing ache in your chest does not come from disease or indicate heart attack rather your heart aches for a child who appears lost. Most of us when flooded with fear respond in one of three ways. We may freeze feeling there is nothing we can do, we may withdraw and refuse to think about the problem hoping it will go away or resolve itself or we fight with all our might to control the situation. Any of these reactions, will have an impact on the child. Like Newton’s third law of motion states for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Due to new neuroscience, we now know that mirror neurons exist, which means the child’s brain will observe and mirror the behavior of the parent as if they were themselves taking the same action. It follows then if the parent is feeling highly anxious and frozen in fear; the child’s brain may then mirror the fear and become more anxious. If the parent withdraws or becomes busy to distract from the pain, the child may conclude that the parent does not care. Most parents when feeling out of control attempt to take back control by imposing more limits in hopes of keeping their child safe and seeking to regain connection. Rather than feeling the love and concern, the child often rebels against the limits feeling the need to be free to make their own choices and seek to preserve their sense of unique identity.

One of the greatest gifts parents can provide their children is to take care first of their own emotions so that they can be available and present to help their lost child. This is counter intuitive. Due to the strength of the bond and the intense love felt for a child, parents focus outward and on the child’s behavior. They think that they will take care of themselves once their child is safe. Often this means both parents and child lose sight of their inner emotional world and the deeper more significant attachment needs go unmet. The focus remains on behavior and often each blames the other for the problem.

Exploring this inner world and using tools to help manage fear or shame will help create the atmosphere for increased connection. Allowing you to then communicate more clearly with your child the love and affection you feel and the truth behind the feelings I am here for you no matter what. Consider the following three topics as you begin your exploration of your thoughts, actions and deeper emotional longings.

1. Am I living in the present moment?
2. Am I exercising self-compassion or am I blaming myself or my child?
3. What is the balance between the time I spend focusing on providing rules, consequences and structure versus the time spent on nurturing the relationship?

When we are experiencing the intense emotions of disconnection and our deeper attachment longings are not being met, we may feel like I did once when my airway was blocked and I could not breathe, DESPERATE. At these times, we have an increased need for self-care, social connection and emotional fuel. However, these are usually the things that we set aside due to the crisis. Remember at these times taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to take care of your child.

Take a moment to journal what are my current thoughts about this situation. What am I doing or not doing in connection to these thoughts? What are the different feelings that I experience because of the issue between myself and my child? Often our statements and actions communicate our more reactive emotions like frustration, anger and demands for respect and compliance. Rarely do we find moments to clearly express our softer emotions like fear, loneliness and longings for knowing that we are lovable and acceptable. Our children also have softer emotions and longings that go unexpressed and due to the distress between parent and child both feel these intense painful emotions and seek ways to cope that may help in the moment but rarely bring connection and healing. For example, yelling, blaming, screaming, ignoring, defiant behavior or abusing substances are all possible ways to cope with underlying pain yet never solve the real underlying needs.

There is hope, tools for healing, and actions that lead to increased safety, vulnerability and connection. Be sure to also read Finding Connection in the Here and Now, Why does my Child Blame?, and Out of Balance: Structure versus Nurture for additional tools and ideas for coping with the crisis of a wayward child.

By Jennifer Solosko LMFT, CEFT
© May 2017

Feeling Disconnected? There’s Hope

Each of us longs for connection.  There are innate needs that we come with that are hard wired in to our systems at birth.  I often ask my clients what they need to survive.  Most will list things like air, water, food and shelter.  Some include things like love or connection.  All human beings experience fear, sadness, anger, joy, disgust and surprise.  Similarly all human beings at their core desire to be heard and understood; free to make choices, to know that they matter, that they are a priority to someone and that they are acceptable and lovable.  If for a period of time these core needs are not being met, then a person will respond emotionally usually feeling an intense primary emotion like shame, fear, rejection, sadness or despair.  Most of us don’t know how to stay present in our bodies for very long with this kind of intense emotion and will shift to a more reactive emotion like anger, frustration, overwhelm or indifference.  Then in connection with this emotion, people will start to think thoughts and behave in certain ways intended to regain connection yet often leading to disconnection.

Some of the more common ways people might try and cope with the emotion associated with the disconnection are to get busy, numb or blame.  Let’s explore each of these a little deeper.

Busy: If we engage in the business of life and keep busy then we don’t have to feel the hurt or pain.  Most of us can imagine being on a treadmill and working out and initially this is great for the stress.  Yet metaphorically speaking, if the treadmill represents us running from our problems then eventually even the strongest person will fatigue and have to get off the treadmill for a rest.  When this happens, often the pain has intensified and feels even scarier as it has gone on for a long time without being addressed directly.  Staying busy doesn’t in the end get you what you need at your deeper core level, and you feel more like a hamster spinning it’s wheel rather than moving towards and in the direction of what you really long for and need.  This provides the ingredients for despair.

Numb: Most of us can relate to the need to distract ourselves from negative emotion.  At some level, this is healthy and necessary for us to keep going with enough energy and psychological strength.  However, when people turn to alcohol and drugs or other numbing agents like food, sex or Netflix, they too feel the initial benefits of relief and the longer term consequences of going without their core needs being fulfilled.  Whatever you choose to use to numb the pain of rejection or squelch the fear of failure or shame, in the end it will not get you what you need and you too will find yourself in the perpetual spinning hamster wheel.

Blame: Who among us hasn’t played the blame game?  When we blame someone else then we don’t have to feel the hurt or shame of it being our fault.  At least for the moment, we can avoid that discomfort.  Unfortunately, the other person will feel defensive and react by either attacking back or going away.  Either version does not in the end leave either one of you feeling connected or rest assured your deeper needs will not be addressed and your level of safety in asking or reaching for your partner again is likely to go down.

Brené Brown said, “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness within will we discover the infinite power of our light.”  We can learn to be aware of what is blocking us from connection and choose to do things differently.  Usually we are reacting to either a fear or shame we feel deep inside.  First, we must be willing to face the fear or the disowned part of ourselves that feels like it is not enough or worthy of love.  We also learn from Brené Brown’s research on shame, that connection is vulnerability plus empathy.  To truly be vulnerable with another person, we must first be able to sit in our own experience long enough to identify what is going on beneath the more reactive emotions.  Once we are in touch with these more vulnerable feelings, then we can risk sharing our story with another.  When we do this with someone who responds with empathy and understanding then, shame can’t survive and fears are quieted and reassured.

Two skills you will want to nurture within yourself first are empathy and vulnerability.

Empathy is learning to be in another’s shoes, share their experience and feel with them at a deeper level.  It is very difficult to put your own “pain on the shelf” and remain fully present with another person.  When we do, the other person feels heard, seen and valued.  This fosters a connection and leads the relationship in the direction of meeting core needs.  Both parties leave feeling a greater sense of safety and fulfillment in the relationship.  Rather than reacting to our fears, we choose to take action that addresses the core needs.

Vulnerability is taking risks, being uncertain and doing it anyway, exposing you emotionally to another person, and the courage to admit imperfection.  This is one of the most courageous things we do as humans; let another person see our true selves and to realize that we are truly lovable and acceptable.  If we never let others see the whole person, we never allow ourselves to truly take their love in and a part of us doubts and fears that if they really knew me then they might go away or reject me.  Finding other people that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with fosters within us an increased sense of self-efficacy.

It is not advisable to let just anyone in to your deepest emotional core or share your story with everyone you know, yet with the people who are truly worthy of your love, the rewards are worth the risks.  Many times people in our experience have not yet learned the skills and it may be necessary for a time to seek professional help to slow things down for the couple until they feel safe enough to take these risks.  There are times when we choose to let people in who are not safe and will not respect healthy boundaries.  Then it becomes our responsibility to make sure we have healthy boundaries and know what we will do if someone crosses those boundaries.  Once you know how to clearly communicate your needs, have healthy boundaries and are willing to take appropriate actions to hold to your boundaries, you will be on a path that leads to a more connected and fulfilling life.


Heal the Body Heal the Mind

If you ever played an instrument or a sport, you know that the body has a memory of its own.  Similar to motor memory, our bodies have implicit memories that occur around traumatic events.  Recent research into neuroscience and epigenetics suggest that our brains change after trauma and that these changes can be passed down through generations with modifications to gene expression.  We are hard wired to respond to traumatic events in three ways.  We reach out socially for support by crying for help, go into fight or flight or shut down and withdraw inward.  Interestingly, these responses show differences in our brain when scanned.  People suffering from trauma are either stuck in fight or flight or perpetually in a state of shut down.

Due to an increased understanding of what is occurring in the brain, we have an improved range of interventions that can help trauma survivors heal.  According to Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., there are three ways to approach treatment: top down, medication or bottom up.  Most of you will be familiar with the top down approach.  This involves a familiar version of talk therapy where an individual with a therapist’s assistance processes the traumatic event and creates some kind of purpose or meaning out of it.  Due to changes in the nervous system and brain, it can be difficult for survivors to respond with compassion to themselves or to stay in the present moment.  Often, there is internalized a deep sense of shame.  Medications may help calm an overactive nervous system yet there are many forms of therapy that you may not have considered that fall in the category of bottom up.

If you are currently struggling with trauma consult with a trusted professional and consider some of the following treatment options:

  1. Mindfulness is awareness in the present moment of what you are thinking, feeling and experiencing in the body. In order to recover, an individual must become self-aware.  Learn how to breathe, stay in the present and be with themselves.  To learn to tolerate the world of their own inner experience, their own emotions.  Practicing mindfulness helps retrain the brain and once skills are developed to allow you to be present with yourself and better regulate your emotions you will be able to work on developing better relationships with others and attuning with them.  Our brains are hard wired for connection. With an opportunity to connect safely and securely with other people, our brains and bodies become rewired for physiological self-regulation.  Often exercises that involve synchrony with others like yoga, dance, or volleyball can assist in the recovery process.
  2. EMDR stands for Eye movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The trauma survivor recalls the traumatic event while also participating in bilateral eye movements which is similar to what occurs naturally while dreaming.  The individual is able to process in a new way the material without the need to talk about it.  Often the individual who was “frozen in time” is now able to move forward without the interference of reoccurring memories or flashbacks.  This type of therapy requires specialized training and a therapist who has been certified to practice this type of psychotherapy.
  3. Lifespan Integration is a newer type of therapy that is currently being researched yet has also shown to be a gentle method that assists the individual to process the information in a new, safe way that does not require talking about it. Through the use of imagery and a timeline, the client is able to provide that part of themselves with what they needed at the time of trauma. Then the client continues to view scenes from their life to the present. This practice proves to the client that time has passed and that their life is different now.  This method is believed to help integrate the splintered implicit memories into the client’s co-constructed autobiographical narrative.  This method also assists clients who have experienced neglect to integrate and connect within themselves to move from a disorganized to a more secure attachment.  This allows the individual the ability to access more fully their social support network and dissipate toxic shame.
  4. Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that is used to train the brain to self-regulate. It is common for trauma survivors to have increased activity in the right temporal lobe resulting in hyper arousal and also a slowing in the brain waves in the frontal cortex used in executive functioning. These changes in the brain contribute to difficulties in regulating mood and a decreased focus and ability to accomplish tasks.  Initially a client will have their brain mapped and then the technician or therapist will develop specialized training sessions to help train your brain to more optimal levels.

The awareness of trauma has grown as does the body of research supporting new interventions.  Despite the new information that shows how trauma negatively impacts the brain, the good news is that humans are resilient and the brain is adaptable.  Healing can come through a combination of techniques or interventions.  There is hope for healing and some of the more amazing people throughout time have been survivors of trauma.

Freeze and Flee, Not For Me

Back in my college years, a roommate of mine played a trick on me that left me paralyzed with fear. Upon entering the room, my mind registered something was different but I couldn’t quite place it. Looking around and not noticing what it was, I proceeded to put my laundry away. To do so, I had to open the closet door from which my roommate leapt out at me. I was so startled my body went into some form of dissonance where my brain and body were out of sync. Someone watching would have seen the laundry basket moving up and down as if I couldn’t decide whether to put it down or pick it up. Afterwards, this left us both in stitches.

For those struggling with anxiety, they know it is no laughing matter. People experiencing it are all too aware of the physical distress and the relentless thoughts pulling them out of the present and into the endless what if’s of the future. Anxiety itself is not the problem. Our fear response is hard wired in us to keep us vigilant and aware of danger that at times is even life threatening. Fear is a basic human emotion designed to provide us with information. Once this information is received, there are only three basic moves: freeze, flee or fight. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released to allow our bodies to prepare for the fight or to get away from it as quickly as possible or if completely flooded to freeze. In the case of being attacked by a grizzly bear, it is best to play dead so you are no longer seen as a threat.

Unfortunately, our brains can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is perceived to be real. One night while deep in sleep I had a dream, I was falling out of a tree. I flailed and hit the bed so hard it woke me up, heart pounding and there I was at home safe in my bed. While awake thinking about the possible negative outcomes, our mind and body often respond “as if” those outcomes are already occurring. This leads the person to a natural defense; avoid whatever it is that makes you feel that way.

It is normal to avoid. If you touch a burner and get burned, you want to avoid getting hurt again. This is often the healthy thing to do. With anxiety, it is natural to want to avoid the things that feel scary or uncomfortable; however it works differently with anxiety as the more you avoid it the scarier it becomes. If you address the problem initially is like a small puddle that you can easily jump over. If the feeling gets bigger and bigger, then it feels too big to jump over. With anxiety we need to take action.

But what do you do if it is your child who is paralyzed with anxiety? Parent’s also feel fear themselves about the negative outcomes that their child with anxiety will experience. If they avoid school, will they pass their classes? Will it impact their future? The parent’s fear often leads them to frustration where they attempt to plead, cajole, bribe or punish their child into action. This can result in a negative reaction in their child where a power struggle arises leaving both feeling powerless and defeated.

No one enjoys feeling that way! Here are a few ideas parents can try. These tools teach children ways to take action and lessen the likelihood of them using avoidance in the future.

1. Progressive muscle relaxation teaches the child how to recognize the level of tension in their body. It is a two step process where first the child tightens a muscle for a few seconds and then focuses on that muscle relaxing. Beginning at the top of the body and progressing down to the toes, muscles are tightened and then relaxed. A fun way to teach this to small children is by playing a game called “Spaghetti.” Parent and child practice getting rigid like uncooked spaghetti and holding this position for 10, 20, 30 seconds and increasing time with practice and attention and then becoming limp noodles like cooked spaghetti and having fun relaxing and going limp to the floor. This can be practiced multiple times.
2. Diaphragmatic breathing is a form of deep breathing where the person fills their lungs slowly and contracts their diaphragm. The belly fills like a balloon and then the person holds their breath for a few seconds. The air is then released slowly through pursed lips. This slow, deep breathing helps reverse the chemical reaction of the hormones released with anxiety and brings a sense of calm. A fun way to teach this to smaller children is by using bubbles. I like having fun competitions with trying to blow the longest and biggest bubble by taking a deep breath, holding it for a few seconds and blowing through pursed lips slowly to get the biggest bubble.
3. Five Senses is a way to help bring a person back into the present and it creates a grounding feeling. The person can use all five of their senses once triggered and feeling anxious to help bring them back to the present moment. Have your child look around and describe what they see with detail about shapes, colors and textures. Have your child choose a favorite scent and smell a favorite scented candle, food item or essential oil. Find an item they enjoy the feel of like a smooth blanket, stuffed animal, kinetic sand or bubbly water. Have your child eat something sweet, salty, or sour and focus on the taste as they chew slowly and savor it. Take a moment to listen to the sounds in the room and list as many as your child can hear or play soothing, quiet music or the sounds of nature.
4. Lattering is a form of breaking things down into smaller more manageable pieces. This could include breathing, five senses, being in the present, reaching out to a support person, and breaking school or work tasks into simple steps. Also, avoiding is rewarding because in the moment it feels better. Adding fun rewards for taking action can help make acting more rewarding. For smaller children, I like magic footprints where you trace your childs footprints and then when they come home from school there is a pathway of footprints to follow to a special snack or treat. Also, magic tree or box where once discovered it holds a special reward.

At times, there are things that can be structured differently at school, enlisting a school psychologist or teachers understanding and help can help mitigate a child’s anxiety especially if it is around another child’s behavior, not being able to use the restroom or with performance anxiety.

For parents, to understand better a child’s emotions and to lessen frustration and anger responses, I like Dan Siegel’s work one of which is the Whole Brain Child that explains why it is so difficult for the child to regulate emotion and gives ideas for how parents can learn this and then help teach their child mindsight which is similar to mindfulness.

Anxiety is normal for all of us yet there are times when it takes on a life of its own and it seems our bodies stay in fight or flight or freeze or flee all the time. When this is the case, seeking out the help of a licensed professional is recommended as these tools are powerful and effective yet require patience and practice. Trained therapists are available to assist you and your child out of the automatic responses and into choosing a calmer, more present action.

Finding Connection in the Here and Now

One of the moments in life that brings me pure joy is to look into the eyes of an infant and with such perfect attunement …

When Children Go Astray

The love between a parent and their child is long lasting. The relationship progresses through time beginning with bonding …

Feeling Disconnected? There’s Hope

Each of us longs for connection.  There are innate needs that we come with that are hard wired in to our systems at birth.  …