Finding Hope and Healing During Humbug Holidays

“Why is everyone so darn happy? They obviously don’t know how life can be ruined in an instant when you lose your ________ (you fill in the blank with husband, wife, partner, child, parent, best friend, marriage, job, house, dignity…). I hate this time of year.” Does this sound like self-talk that resonates with you?

"Why is everyone so darn happy?"

The loss that some of us are facing this holiday season is deeply personal, and it may feel overwhelming, with no relief in sight. You may not only be missing the person or thing that you’ve lost, but also the hopes and dreams that were connected. This is grief, and it can be excruciating. Grief offers us a reason to disengage from all that is going on around us. Grief offers us an excuse to be angry, anxious, depressed, lonely and withdrawn. Grief offers us a quiet and dark place to get stuck. Does this sound at all familiar to you? If you are in the midst of experiencing great sadness after a significant loss, then know that you are not alone. Know also that your grief can be an integral part of your journey toward hope, healing and renewal.

Grief offers us a reason to disengage from all that is going on around us....Grief offers us a quiet and dark place to get stuck.

On this journey it’s helpful to remember that:

  • There is no timeline for the resolution of grief. Regardless of the type of loss you are experiencing, this is a very individual process. It’s also typical to re-experience grief annually, or several years after a profound loss, even when you feel that you have moved on with your life.
  • Grief may be experienced with a broad swath of emotions, including anger, deep sadness, denial, shock, and guilt, as well as fear of the unknown. Your grief may include one or more of these feelings, along with feelings that may seem particularly unsettling, like relief. 
  • Grief is not just emotional; it can be physical too. When anxiety is present (as it often is with grief) our cortisone level increases in response to our brain preparing us for a fight or flight response to the stress that we are experiencing. This causes our nervous system to become over-stimulated, and our immune system to become compromised. These physical circumstances impact our ability to accurately gauge our environment as well as the responses of others, effectively shaping the lens through which we view the world. Hence grief can begin to feel endless, painfully isolating, physically draining and mentally exhausting.   
  • Emotion is strongly linked to memory, as well as to certain events, smells, and songs that can trigger tears. It’s often difficult to get through holiday outings that bring a clash these triggers. It’s OK to opt out of events that feel too difficult, or to build in flexibility and manage expectations when attending. Let the host know that you may need to arrive late or depart early. If the annual gift and cookie exchanges seem meaningless, then skip them this year.
  • Become aware of others in need and consider how you might help. Volunteering your time, talents and resources can be personally rewarding, especially during the holidays.
  • Honor your loss by continuing an old tradition, then honor yourself by creating a new holiday experience that could become a sweet memory or even a new tradition for future years.
  • Ask for what you need, and be clear about what is not helpful. Loved ones, friends and neighbors are not issued “how to” manuals when our loss occurs. Often those that have been close to us become mute, absent or thoughtless in the midst of our suffering. It can be hard for them to find meaningful words of comfort, and it can be hard for you to be responsive when you’re feeling numb. When asked how they can help you, be specific. If a kind gesture is made, all that is required of you is to say “thank you.” No need to reciprocate, or to feel additional stress or guilt when accepting the kindness of others.
  • Seek otherness. Humans are hard-wired for relational connectivity. The connections that we find most satisfying are those that are personal, and often involve the human touch. This cannot happen in front of a screen, on social media or via text. Grief is best worked through with friendship, group or family therapy, and with individual counseling.  
  • Start a gratitude journal for the new year ahead. Don’t wait until January 1st. Acknowledge your loss and the pain that it has caused you. Then think about how your narrative might shift with a different perspective. Be kind to yourself, and open to all possibilities. Begin today, in anticipation of another chapter that can bring unexpected opportunities and new beginnings.
“Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have - life itself.”
- Walter Anderson

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Ingredients for a Strong Parent-Child Relationship

Photo by yassan-yukky

Photo by yassan-yukky

As I was writing my grocery list for the upcoming holiday, I listed the ingredients needed. Just like grandma’s sweet potato casserole recipe, parenting for strong relationships requires ingredients too.

One of my clients spoke brave words last week. She said, "I did not know being a parent was going to be this hard!" Parenting is one of the most challenging and rewarding tasks in life. Everyone has ideas for parenting just like everyone has special ingredients for their homemade dishes. By starting with ingredients that are tried and true with a little extras that work for you, connection and trust can be built with your children. Your ingredients may not look exactly like your best friend’s or even your parents’ recipe for parenting but there are a few staples for all of us to consider.

By starting with ingredients that are tried and true with a little extras that work for you, connection and trust can be built with your children.

Try a cup of showing mutual respect. You are probably asking yourself the question, "Does this mean that both parents and children are the same?" The answer is no. Life experiences and responsibilities set us apart from the 18 and younger crowd but we are both human beings and deserve respect. Finding an opportunity to work with your child and create a system to establish ground rules, promote healthy communication habits, encourage age-appropriate decisions and share household chores can lead to a successful recipe for a happier family life.

Next on the list is having fun. It is important and can be simple. Begin by smiling more. Be willing to laugh at yourself and tune in to your child’s sense of humor. Let fixing meals or shopping for groceries together become time to talk, share stories, or even to be silly. Planning some enjoyable time together is also a good idea. Brainstorm ideas for having fun as a family. Ask everyone for suggestions. Be open-minded and not quick to judge. Thinking of fun stuff to do may be easier then the planning. By focusing on what to do and when to do it and then following through with that one activity makes fun happen!

Encouragement means giving less importance to mistakes and more importance to your child’s strengths.

Giving encouragement shows we believe in our kids, and thus, they believe in themselves. What a sweet part of the parenting recipe! Each child is unique and has many special and wonderful qualities. To feel capable and loved, children need lots of encouragement. Encouragement means giving less importance to mistakes and more importance to your child’s strengths.

Showing love fills your child’s emotional tank and is essential. Unconditional love fuels the place of emotional strength to help your child through their challenging days. Refill regularly through your words and actions because as it gets depleted a little extra of the showing love additive goes far in the parenting mix.

Creating your own parenting concoction with a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that added to the mixture of these four staples could have your kiddos cleaning their plates and asking for more saying, "please" and "thank you"!

AUSTIN FAMILY INSTITUTE

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Facing Our Emotions Head On

Photo by UK in Italy

Photo by UK in Italy

When we experience emotional pain, so often we turn to distraction or denial. The trappings of the fast-paced world we live in make it even easier to divert attention away from overwhelming feelings. Sometimes numbness is preferable in the face of grief, depression, or anxiety. We focus on work or pleasure, rarely taking a moment to acknowledge our own pain. With the advent of technology, pills, and other more sophisticated ways to numb and distract ourselves, many can avoid facing their real issues for years, or even decades.

Overwhelmingly, the dominant cultural message we receive is that we need to bottle up our emotions, keep to ourselves, and figure things out on our own.

In Prince Harry’s case, a very publicized family tragedy, (the death of his mother Princess Diana) lead to 20 years of “sticking his head in the sand,” thinking that talking about his loss would only be painful and reap few benefits. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Harry reveals that after decades of partying and distracting himself in various ways, he was faced with two years of complete chaos. Wavering on the verge of a breakdown, Harry sought out counseling and found the much-needed relief that had evaded him for so long. In therapy, he was given the opportunity to process the grief he had repressed for all those years. According to the Prince, counseling allowed him to heal and move forward with the new goal of helping others acknowledge their own emotional struggles and prioritize their mental wellness.

Overwhelmingly, the dominant cultural message we receive is that we need to bottle up our emotions, keep to ourselves, and figure things out on our own. Only recently has the tide begun to turn as we now know that facing our emotions head on is exactly what helps us experience love, happiness, and fulfillment. As Prince Harry described, 

“There is huge merit in talking about your issues and the only thing about keeping it quiet is that it’s only ever going to make it worse.”

We are human beings. Our feelings demand to be felt and will at some point boil over in seemingly sideways, and unrelated displays at times.  Yet, if we can work through our issues in counseling, we may take our struggles for what they are and move through them. The more we see people in the public eye speaking up about their struggles and advocating for seeking help, the better equipped we are to fight against the stigma of mental health.

At Austin Family Institute, our goal is bridge the mental healthcare gap by providing affordable and quality counseling. With our sliding scale fees, multiple locations, and flexible appointment times, we aim to make therapy more accessible to all who seek help.

AUSTIN FAMILY INSTITUTE

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Couples & Cocktails: What Therapists Need to Know That They Don't.

Photo by Sam Howzit

Photo by Sam Howzit

Substance abuse is one of the most perplexing and patience-testing aspects of clinical treatment. The way the body responds to a drug, like alcohol, makes it's chronic abuse frustrating to treat. To make matters even more complicated, substance abuse challenges like alcohol abuse or alcoholism emerge in subtle ways when you're treating couples. 

How does alcohol use or abuse affect intimacy?

This is just one of the many questions that therapists will encounter when treating couples in which one or both partners struggles with alcohol abuse. Fortunately, because it's such a perplexing problem, there are excellent researchers and clinicians dedicated to it's treatment. 

Take Dr. Barbara S. McCrady

Dr. McCrady's dedication to the treatment of alcohol abuse within couple's work is nationally recognized. She has paved the road for clinicians across the country who are trying to help couples and families dealing with this vexing problem. 

We're proud and excited to have Dr. McCrady as the keynote speaker at our upcoming day conference on Friday, October 14th. Dr. McCrady will speak about her cutting edge research on how alcohol problems impact intimate relationships. She'll discuss, specifically, how alcohol abuse impacts not just couples, but the families that surround them. 

Most importantly, Dr. McCrady will discuss treatment modalities that clinicians can use to help treat couples in need of support. 

We're excited to offer 7 CEUs (1.5 ethics) LMFTs, LPCs, LCDCs, social workers and psychologists. Registration is open now and will remain open to the day of the conference. You can register now or at the conference. 

We are excited to host this day conference in partnership with our sponsors and look forward to an informational and inspiring conference with Dr. McCrady. 

For sponsors, information about this event is available on our sponsorship page. We look forward to partnering with you. 

Austin Family Institute

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Hope for the Holidays

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We might be looking forward to the holidays with great anticipation: excited, joyous anticipation or anticipation full of dread, or a mixture of both. Our hope is for it to go well, we want to see family but history might be telling us to be more cautious.

With a little planning and realistic anticipation we can change the way we respond to Uncle Joe’s brash behavior, Aunt Nellie’s pat on the cheek, or any number of other ways family members typically behave. 

Let’s be detectives.

First, sit with paper and pen in hand and identify the family members who will be involved.  Beside their name, note what behavior you can expect from each of them. It might be necessary to draw lines between family members who typically get engaged with behavior you find difficult to navigate. It is important to identify the predictable patterns which you have observed over time.

Once you have a realistic picture of the players begin your second step. Make a list of what you typically do in each situation.  For example:

  • Do you retreat?
  • Do you have another piece of pie?
  • Do you have too much to drink as a means of escaping the situation?
  • Do you get in the thick of the fight later to regret what you have said?
  • Do you attempt to help everyone get along and make it better?
  • Do you avoid having another piece of pie because mother will say something about your weight?
  • Do you like spending time with your cousin whom you don’t see often?
  • What about the scene do you enjoy?

It is as important to identify what you like as well as what you don’t like. The next piece to the detective work might be the most difficult but it is the most important step to changing the outcome. 

The most successful changes will be those changes that are small, direct, and simply stated.

Third,  imagine doing something different in each situation that allows you make a positive step to a more enjoyable holiday. The most successful changes will be those changes that are small, direct, and simply stated. For example, “I want you to come for dinner but I need to ask you not to come if you have already been drinking.” The ability to think through what you can do differently gives you the choice over your own holiday. We do not have change over anyone else but we can change our part which is the most important part. 

Fourth,  anticipate how others will respond to the changes you anticipate making in order to be prepared.

SCHEDULE AN APPOINTMENT WITH LIZ TODAY.

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What's Eating You For Thanksgiving?

Photo by Claudine Lucena

Photo by Claudine Lucena

Eating is as much a mental experience as it is a physical one.  Emotions and stress certainly influence our appetite and eating habits.  When stressed our bodies release certain hormones and neurotransmitters which trigger our desire for foods that will produce quick energy (think carbohydrates, cookies, sweets, etc) that will fuel our “fight or fight” endeavor.  

These same foods also increase the levels of serotonin and endorphins in our brains which help calm us and make us feel better.  And endorphins, what I like to call Mother Nature’s morphine, not only decreases pain and the effects of stress, but can actually make you crave more of what you are eating.  They are called “comfort food” for a reason!  

What are you really feeding, your heart or your stomach?

The Thanksgiving holiday can be a perfect storm for emotional eating.  Ample amounts of potential stress (crowded airports and delayed flights, packed freeways, high holiday expectations, Black Friday shopping and lots of family time—especially all of the family time) coupled with plenty of food—enough to feed a small army!—can set anyone up for a deluge of donuts!  

So, how do you manage it all?  I tell my clients it is all about balance and awareness.  First, make a conscious effort to include healthy snacks along with the traditional holiday cookies and sweets.  Second, know your terrain.  Identify your stressors beforehand.  Know who or what sets you off.  Third, know your exits.  Limit time around certain people (you know who they are!), avoid certain topics (maybe it is not a good idea to talk politics this year) or have a good book or movie to escape into.  Fourth, pay attention to your feelings.  The most common feelings that precede overeating include: depression, anxiety, anger, boredom and loneliness. If you are experiencing any of these feelings during your holiday, be cognizant of your emotional hunger versus physical hunger.  What are you really feeding, your heart or your stomach?  And finally, enjoy the food!  Just listen to your body; it will tell you when you are full.     

SCHEDULE AN APPOINTMENT WITH brad TODAY.

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An in Depth Look at the International Summer Institute 2015

By Mandi Roarke, M.A., LMFT-Associate

This post is the second of a two-part series on Collaborative therapy and the International Summer Institute. Click here for Part I.

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As a therapist, I am guided by the desire to always challenge myself to learn and grow not only as a professional but also an individual. While my education in graduate school and additional trainings has offered me a solid foundation of knowledge for marriage and family therapy, I left graduate school knowing my learning could not stop there. In fact, my learning as a professional and individual could never stop. If I assumed I know all I needed to ever know for therapy, because of theories learned, I would be doing a disservice to my clients.

The traditional theories I studied about offer me a base of information but there is not one theory that works for every client. The concept of "one size fits all" in the therapeutic world simply does not exist. I believe every day and each moment within the therapeutic space with my clients evolves and changes- with new meanings constantly being created through our conversations. So when I heard about an opportunity to participate in a collaborative learning experience in Mexico named the International Summer Institute (ISI), I was motivated for the professional challenge and the personal experience.

The concept of "one size fits all" in the therapeutic world simply does not exist.

The ISI is an annual collaborative learning experience lead by one of the founders of Collaborative Language Systems, Harlene Anderson, and a training institute for the Collaborative Language Systems theory, Groupo Campos Elíseos. With participants from all over the world, the summer institute is an enriching experience focused on conversation and dialog.

I was unsure what I would gain from the ISI. I knew we would explore the concepts of Collaborative Therapy, but I did not envision actually feeling the transformative effects of being a part of these conversations and dialogical spaces.

For almost a week I collaborated with people through language and translation. Several conversational partners did not speak English yet I still felt connected to these individuals based on our ability to communicate nonverbally and to work through translation. Friends I made in my conversational group were from Taiwan, Brazil, Canada, the United States, and Columbia. The stories of their experiences in their respective cultures and countries, in comparison to my own, left me creating new meaning in my own experience- professionally and personally.

Our conversations allow us to create new meanings, which then can create change in their lives.

The standard means for communication at the ISI is through constant translation. The translators would translate everything that was said in English to Spanish, and vice versa. It was interesting how translation slowed the conversation down, and because of this I individually experienced a greater understanding of the words being shared. I tend to be a fast paced individual, with words and thought, and the translation signified a lesson for me- to slow down. When I think about slowing down, I think about how this transfers into the therapy room for continued focus. Slow down to really listen. Slow down to really seek understanding. Slow down to really be curious about my clients' experience and not assume their experience is the same as another's. Being thoughtful about slowing down ensures I am not asserting myself as the expert in my clients' lives; rather I am a shared learner in their experience. Our conversations allow us to create new meanings, which then can create change in their lives.

One of the main collaborative therapy demonstrations at the ISI was called "a conversation in the middle of the room" with Harlene as the therapist. I was given the opportunity to participate in this conversation, and without much internal debate, I volunteered. I shared the conversational space with two other women and our translator. The three women (myself included) were sharing our own personal presenting problems with Harlene. During our conversation, it quickly escaped me that I was sharing some emotional personal details in front of a roomful of 80 people. It escaped me because of the pace of our conversation and the genuine curiosity from Harlene. She wanted to know me, she wanted to understand me, and she was not just seeking information to then prescribe a quick solution. Also, the other women's experiences impacted my own as I heard the two of them communicate their own struggles. The conversation alone allowed me to process my own experience in a new way and I left the "conversation in the middle of the room" feeling less anxious and clearer about my own dilemma.

In the therapeutic space my clients and I share, I will take lessons learned and reinforced from the ISI to continue to build my confidence in my approach to therapy. I want my clients to know how this collaborative experience will help me help them. Day by day, I am here to work towards understanding my clients' individual and relational experience. I am here to be present and a part of my clients' life altering conversations. I am always learning about my clients and I will continue to focus on being genuinely curious. This curiosity will help my clients and I engage in conversations that will continue to create new meaning in their lives and relationships. My greatest ambition is to continue to recognize how my clients are the experts in their lives and my role is to help their voices shine through.

For more information about Harlene Anderson and the International Summer Institute click here

AUSTIN FAMILY INSTITUTE

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Expanding Experiences: A Culturally Immersive Experience in Collaborative Therapy

By Caroline Harris, M.A., LMFT-Associate

This post is the first of a two-part series on Collaborative therapy and the International Summer Institute. Click here for Part II.

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On June 14, 2015 I traveled to Isla Mujeres, Mexico with a colleague to attend Harlene Anderson’s annual International Summer Institute. We expected to learn about collaborative language systems therapy, we expected to watch collaborative therapy in demonstrations and we expected to engage in collaborative conversations. What we didn’t expect was for the entire experience to shift our personal understanding of meaning-generating conversations and impact our philosophical understanding of collaborative therapy in professional practice.

The client is the expert of their own life, they have the answers within themselves.

In comparison to modernist views of therapy, Collaborative therapy is a relatively new therapeutic concept. It challenges the traditional understanding of how therapy is done, what therapy looks like in session and what metrics are used to measure therapeutic success. At the heart of our collaborative experience at ISI was the importance of conversations. Conversations about conversations; maintaining a circular dialogue that allows each person to listen and respond in a uniquely authentic voice while continually creating new-meanings and understanding as the dialogue unfolds. Inherent in the perspective of the collaborative therapist is the notion of curiosity and tentativeness, both in thought, language and understanding of therapeutic conversations. Dialogue with a client is truly collaborative when both the therapist and client approach the interaction with uncertainty, curiosity and shared inquiry. In Collaborative therapy, the client is the expert of their own life, they have the answers within themselves. The therapist exercises the expertise of facilitating conversations and dialogue.

Traditional practices of therapy are entrenched in hierarchy and diagnosis, wherein a client is automatically placed in a one-down position and participating in a chain of command experience. Collaborative therapy lends itself to an on-going conversation that creates an ever evolving understanding of life and experiences. The process of collaborative conversations is circular and incorporates the possibilities and experiences from our past, present and future. The conversation that creates new meaning and change in a client’s life emerges from the diversity, culture and subjective experience of each individual participating.

Collaborative therapy lends itself to an on-going conversation that creates an ever evolving understanding of life and experiences.

While at ISI, I shared a daily conversational group with members from Argentina, Sweden, Austria, Taiwan, Belgium and Mexico; all members actively engaging in collaborative practices in their respective cultures and countries. Through a natural flow of conversation and dialogue about our lives and experiences we organically co-created an appreciation and understanding of our differences and similarities. What we came to find was that we felt united through the human condition and compassionate towards our quest to learn from one another and understand people more. A guest speaker at the conference, John Shotter, eloquently described our small group experience when he said, “Being immersed in the flow of activity affects us more than we affect it. We only exist as humans because we sustain the flow of interacting and relating with the world around us; we require the flow of activity to sustain who we are.” 

For more information about Harlene Anderson and the International Summer Institute click here

AUSTIN FAMILY INSTITUTE

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We Are All Searching For an "Ideal" Love Story...

Credit: Jonathan McPherskesen, Flickr

Credit: Jonathan McPherskesen, Flickr

Each and every one of us, to some extent, has an idea of what we want our romantic relationships to look like, as well as preconceived notions about what love "should" be like. However, realistically speaking, what is an ideal relationship for one person may not be an ideal relationship for another.

Our views regarding what a romantic relationship "should" look like can also vary based on what we have seen play out in our families of origin, as well as our past relationships. In addition to our own life experiences, many of us have been influenced by books, movies, and the media.

We are all searching for that "ideal" love story, but perhaps we need to be more flexible about our concept of what we consider ideal in order to deepen our satisfaction.

Recently you have seen in the news that quite a few notable celebrity couples have split up. While scrolling through social media, it is difficult to ignore the captions making declarations that love no longer exists, and that if these couples can't make it, there is no hope for the rest of us.

It is easy to become discouraged when it comes to hardships in marriages and relationships, particularly when we look to celebrities and actors/actresses and put their relationships on a pedestal.

This gives us an impossible standard to live up to -- and these unrealistic portrayals of love can interfere with our perceptions of what we want our own relationships to look like.

The reality is, it is up to us to take our relationships into our own hands. Every relationship is different and goes through different hardships, and no two relationships are completely alike. More than anything else, it simply takes dedication, communication, and willingness to make it work.

Here at AFI, we can help clients deepen intimacy while remaining individuals, overcome conflict, and feel more connected to one another.

Written by Danielle Vabner, Undergraduate Volunteer

If you are looking to make a change, give us a call at (512) 329-6611.

What Makes Couples' Counseling Effective?

Photo by Ben Cremin

Photo by Ben Cremin

Seeking out couples' counseling, especially for the first time, is often a difficult process for both partners.

It can be emotionally taxing to admit that something may have gone wrong in your relationship and that it needs help in order to get back on track. It can be even more difficult to satisfy both partners' needs and objectives in therapy in order to ensure that progress is made; however, with some ground rules and willingness to participate on both ends, couples' therapy can be very effective.

Liz Gentry, our Senior Director of Programs, defines four different categories that can help contribute to successful couples' counseling:

1. Trust

Trust is key, both between the therapist and and the couple as well as both partners.

2. Commitment

In order to make progress, commitment is crucial, both to the relationship itself and to resolving conflict within the relationship.

3. Vulnerability

Both partners should be willing to express their feelings and be open in session.

4. Ownership of Fault

Both partners should be willing to admit their role in the conflict.

Gentry also believes that the key to successful couples' counseling is managing expectations. In a society where we are conditioned to believe that love should look a certain way, we are often told what our relationships should look like -- however, the fact is that every relationship is different, and individual growth is an important part of every relationship.

While both partners don't necessarily grow together, that doesn't mean that they have to grow apart, either. Realizing this can be crucial for couples who want to work on their relationship and see results.

When a couple comes in for counseling and no longer has faith in the relationship, that is where the therapist steps in. "It's a therapist's job to hold hope for the couple, even if the couple doesn't believe it," Gentry says. "The therapist can do that by providing structure for the couple."

Along with structure, Gentry says, balance is key for couples who want a safe space to work through their issues. Here at AFI, we balance compassion for our clients while also calling them to responsibility. It is precisely this balance that can help a couple get back on track.

Written by Danielle Vabner, Undergraduate Volunteer 

Call us today to schedule an appointment.

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