Oh I’ve Tried, I Just Can’t Meditate

This wonderful article by Wendy Hasenkamp and the excellent folks at Mind & Life Institute is a great antidote for those of us who claim they just can’t meditate. This comes up in my office all the time. “I tried, I just can’t do it.” “My mind is too busy to try to meditate.” Similar to Ms. Hasenkamp, I find that most folks have a misconception about what meditation is and isn’t. The goal of meditation is not to have an empty mind. That might occur, at some point, apparently, or so I’ve heard, but it is not the goal. And if that is your goal, you will be disappointed rather quickly. Instead, meditation practice creates a perfect incubation space for our mind to do what it does best, think! Our task is to notice the thoughts, and practice the muscle of letting them go. That is the goal, notice you are thinking, and then let it go.

If you get to an empty mind, give me a call. I want to know your secret!!

Cheers!

 

 

Chris Tickner is a Pasadena psychotherapist,child therapist, and clinical supervisor practicing holistic psychotherapy, where he combines mindfulness psychotherapy,  somatic therapyneuroscience, and good old fasion humor and compassion to form a a powerful treatment that is transformative and holistic.  There are thousands of California psychotherapists, and finding a counselor or finding a therapist can be daunting. On his website, Chris provides a primer to help you find the therapist that is perfect for you! Chris is also a Pasadena therapist specializing in anxiety psychotherapy and depression psychotherapy.

For Confidential Study on Sexually Abused Men and Psychotherapy

Background: At least 1 in 6 males in the United States experience sexual abuse prior to the age of 18, and the impact of that abuse is often devastating and long-lasting. Yet many men remain silent for decades before talking about the abuse, and even fewer seek professional help. This research project will help us understand why men tend to stay away from therapy, and will help the psychology community design more appropriate and effective ways to reach out and help.

Who: Seeking men who experienced sexual abuse in childhood, who feel that the abuse has had some negative impact on their lives, and who have never or recently just sought treatment specifically focusing on the abuse (you might currently or have in the past been in therapy for other issues as well), to participate in interviews about the experience of seeking help. You will not be asked to talk about the details of the abuse and your identity will be held in the strictest confidence.

Contact: If you are interested to be a part of this study, please contact Chris Tickner to set up an initial 20 minute screening phone call.

Chris Tickner, MFT
818-568-6982
cticksoma@gmail.com

Chris Tickner is a Pasadena psychotherapist,child therapist, and clinical supervisor practicing holistic psychotherapy, where he combines mindfulness psychotherapy,  somatic therapyneuroscience, and good old fasion humor and compassion to form a a powerful treatment that is transformative and holistic.  There are thousands of California psychotherapists, and finding a counselor or finding a therapist can be daunting. On his website, Chris provides a primer to help you find the therapist that is perfect for you! Chris is also a Pasadena therapist specializing in anxiety psychotherapy and depression psychotherapy.

What Should Penn State Do?

At least 1 in 6 men in the US are sexually abused as boys. Most will never disclose this. Most will never seek treatment. You know someone who was sexually abused as a boy. Please just know this.

I’m a psychotherapist in private practice in Pasadena, CA. I work extensively with male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I’m also a doctoral candidate at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology and writing my dissertation, Male Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Psychotherapy: Why Men Don’t Show Up.

Someone asked me today, what can Penn State do to really help the victims anyway?

I have a client who was part of the Catholic Church abuse situation. He actually received over 1 million in compensation from them, and he has a lot to say about what they could have done. Both he as his brother were sexually abused by two priests when they were boys. He is now 48 and says that he would give back all the money, and then give that much again, if it would mean he and his brother were never abused. He wishes the church would have found him help earlier in his life, like therapy, that such resources and knowledge of trauma and healing from abuse would have been more valuable to him than the money.

So, I think Penn State could do at least four things. They could make sure all of the victims, and their families, and their future families, have access to resources like therapists, specialists, online survivor communities (malesurvivor.org, 1in6.org), other organizations that provide healing to survivors, groups, education, etc. This is the most important thing they could do.

Then, they could pay for it. They could pay for all the therapy, not just for the victims, but their families, their future partners or wives, their children. All will be impacted by this for years to come, and all could benefit from therapy and other resources. Penn State should give enough money for everyone impacted by this situation to recover as much as they can and as much as they want to.

Thirdly, they should do research. With such a powerful university, with facilities and people to do research, they should do a case study analysis of how their institution, and others, allow such things to happen. How is it possible that these individuals, who I bet are not bad people, but loving and kind and compassionate people, cover up such a horrible thing? There is something that happens in institutions that seems like a cover up. But what is it, how does it happen? They should study this, and publish it, and make sure their findings are disseminated to other institutions, other universities, other groups.

Finally, they should initiate or be part of an educational and informative campaign. Over the past several years, there has been an effort to educate the public about male childhood sexual abuse. Penn State should join that effort, both financially and in action. Oprah was part of it last year with her two-part special on the subject. Penn State should find ways to continue this effort. Bring knowledge of the reality of male childhood sexual abuse to the public, there at Penn State, to faculty, staff, students, the community, and to the larger community, via public service announcements during their games, conventions and recruiting efforts, etc.

At least 1 in 6 men in the US are sexually abused as boys. Most will never disclose this. Most will never seek treatment. You know someone who was sexually abused as a boy. Please just know this.

I think there is a lot Penn State could do and should do to mitigate the pain these victims will suffer. There is a lot they can do.

You’ve seen those commercials on TV where one person does something nice for someone, who in turn does something nice for someone else? While I have no idea what they’re selling, a study published recently in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that there is some evidence that there is a contagion effect for kindness! You really can Pay It Forward!

What the research shows is that we are potentially wired for contagious cooperative behavior, both good and bad (picture two scenes, one of looters during a riot, and one of strangers jumping into the sea to save a whale). When one individual allows another to, say, merge in front of them in traffic, that person is likely to allow the next three mergers he encounters to come in front of him, and so on, until you have an entire society of curteous drivers! All it takes is one person to start the chain.

The research was conducted by James Fowler of UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard, who also coauthored “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.” In the current study, Fowler and Christakis demonstrated that when one person was genrous with money in a “public-goods game,” the players benefiting from their generosity where in turn more likely to give their own money away. This kindness spreads first to three people, then to nine, then to 27 and so on.

An important part of the study was that both positive and negative behaviors followed a contagious path! We have the power to spread both good and bad in the world. So maybe just keep that in mind the next time you find yourself late for work and decide to not let that annoying person merge in front of you. Just don’t be surprised if the next time you’re trying to merge, you also get the short end of the stick. What goes around really does come around! Karma man!

Chris Tickner is a Pasadena psychotherapist, child therapist, and clinical supervisor practicing holistic psychotherapy, where he combines mindfulness psychotherapy,  somatic therapy, neuroscience, and good old fasion humor and compassion to form a a powerful treatment that is transformative and holistic.  There are thousands of California psychotherapists, and finding a counselor or finding a therapist can be daunting. On his website, Chris provides a primer to help you find the therapist that is perfect for you! Chris is also a Pasadena therapist specializing in anxiety psychotherapy and depression psychotherapy.

There comes a point and time in every growing therapist’s development when they have to let go of all the tools and tricks. They have to trust that what they have learned is now second nature, and rest into the moment, into the relationship with their client. The following story details that moment in my life.

When Tony was just two days old, the Department of Child and Family Services removed him from the care of his mother as she tested positive for cocaine and other substances. He was immediately placed into foster care and into the home of a foster mother with at least four other children. He was removed from that home due to allegations of neglect when he was eleven months, and over the next two years spent time in at least three other foster homes. By the time Tony was three, the impact of multiple placements, neglect, and exposure to drugs when in his mother’s womb was obvious. He would rock himself, bang his head on the wall or headboard of his bed. He was difficult to soothe, oppositional, would have several severe tantrums every day. His caregivers at the time struggled to find ways to control him.

Tony stayed in one foster home from the time he was three until he was six and entered grade school for the first time. Unfortunately, with school came a whole host of other problems. Unlike other kids his age, Tony had no idea how to get along with friends, how to understand their feelings, how to show empathy. He would tease, threaten, bully, physically attack, and provoke his peers. His teachers struggled to control him, and eventually Tony was expelled from school in the first grade, still at the age of six. Also at this time, his foster family had had enough and gave what’s called a 7-day notice. This basically means that they are giving DCFS a week to find a new home for Tony. They did, and Tony was placed in a residential care facility, an RCL-14 facility, the highest level of such care in the state short of psychiatric hospitalization.

At the young age of six, Tony was placed in a facility with 60 other boys, ages 6-17. He was the youngest and the smallest. This is when I met Tony for the first time. I had just started working at this home as an intern, and had been assigned a caseload of 7 boys. Tony was now one of my clients. My job, as a clinician, was to provide individual therapy. My background had been in somatic psychology, and I was used to working with high functioning adults. I had no idea what to do with these kids. We received some rudimentary training and were advised to stick with cognitive behavioral approaches, as they were shown to be the most efficacious. I felt like a foreigner in a strange land.

And so, I started to work with Tony in such a manner, working specifically on his behaviors, creating behavior charts, incentive programs, dissecting his thinking and his decision making. I had mood and feeling charts, anger management games, and consequential thinking development tools. Yet I knew I was missing something. Somewhere in the back of mind, or maybe in my heart, I knew that I wasn’t reaching him, that I wasn’t meeting his needs. He was frustrated with me, bored. Our sessions were tedious, I hated them. I didn’t look forward to seeing him and began to resent for the feelings I was having. How dare this little kid make me feel so inadequate!

One day, I received a call from our crisis unit. Tony had run away again, left school in a rage, and ran out into the neighborhood. He was gone for several hours before they found him and brought him back. As was standard protocol in such situations, I was required to come down to the crisis unit and perform a safety and risk evaluation with Tony. I brought him back to my office and started to ask him the standard questions on the form, “On a scale from 1-10, how angry are you?” “10!” “OK, 10. Complete this sentence, I feel like hurting myself never, sometimes, or all of the time.” “All of the time!” Tony was getting angrier and angrier. So was I. This wasn’t working, and I knew it. As I proceeded to follow the standard protocol, to keep within the bounds of what was expected of me, he began to escalate. Finally, he had enough, stood up on top of his chair, and screamed through his tears “Why won’t you just be with me!”

In that moment, I melted. I dropped all the cognitive behavioral facade, and I trusted my body and my feelings to do what was right. There before me was a tiny, tired, terrified little boy. He had never had a mother, or a father, he didn’t know how to get along with people, he didn’t know how to be civilized. He did however know that he need something. In an instant I saw the infant in him, crying to be held. I cried. I put down my clipboard, looked deeply into his eyes. I opened my arms and said nothing. It took only a moment, he felt the shift, and came running towards me, falling into my arms. He sobbed and so did I. My body knew exactly what to do, and it was not on any chart, or form, or strategic plan. He needed to be held, as if he were an infant. And so I held him, rocked him, soothed him for what felt like hours. He eventually fell asleep in my arms.

This story illustrates what has been shown to be the most important predictor of a positive therapeutic experience. When all is said and done, it is not the theoretical orientation, nor the specific interventions, that make therapy good. It is the quality of the relationship, the attachment, between therapist and client, that allows the client to feel safe, respected, accepted, and builds the ground for change. Tony was met by me when I simply allowed myself to be with him.

I worked with Tony for several years after that. After that moment, our work deepened, and I kept trusting myself that I knew instinctively what to do for this little guy. When our paths parted, his life continued to be a struggle, in and out of group homes and foster care. I’ve lost touch with Tony. He is now probably 18 or so. I can only hope that those moments of deep attachment and attunement made some difference in his chaotic life.

Chris Tickner is a Pasadena psychotherapist, child therapist, and clinical supervisor practicing holistic psychotherapy, where he combines mindfulness psychotherapy,  somatic therapy, neuroscience, and good old fasion humor and compassion to form a a powerful treatment that is transformative and holistic.  There are thousands of California psychotherapists, and finding a counselor or finding a therapist can be daunting. On his website, Chris provides a primer to help you find the therapist that is perfect for you! Chris is also a Pasadena therapist specializing in anxiety psychotherapy and depression psychotherapy.

In a study published today in The Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute report the number of adults being prescribed psychiatric drug combinations is increasing. Between 1996 and 1997, 42% of psychiatric patients were prescribed two or more drugs. In just ten years this number has jumped to 60%. What’s more, many of the drug combinations being prescribed have never been tested before, and many are showing adverse effects like weight gain and increased cholesterol.

An interesting finding in this study is that levels of mental illness have not been increasing, but rather the increase in multiple drug treatment might be due to a psychiatric focus on symptom reduction. If you are prescribed Prozak for your depression, for example,  you might develop anxiety. Your doctor might then prescribe Xanax. And so on.  I’ve worked with several clients who are routinely on two or more medications. One 10-year-old boy I worked with was on five psychotropic medications at once.

What does this mean for you? Medication has become a standard and effective way to treat the symptoms of many mental illnesses. I have seen medication literally save lives. However, the science is just not there yet to support what is happening in the field. This means that you need to take it upon yourself to know what you are putting into your body, what it does, what the side-effects are, and how it interacts with other medications. Make your doctor do her homework. Have her prove to you that what she is recommending is backed by the literature and has been shown to work. There are many motivations out there for doctors to prescribe medication, unfortunately your well-being is not always at the top of the list.

One final and alarming finding in this study is that patients who are covered by Medicaid were more often prescribed multiple drugs than individuals with private insurance. This builds on an earlier study by a federally funded team from Rutgers and Columbia that found that children on Medicaid are prescribed medication for mental illness at a rate four times higher than children on private insurance. There is currently a debate as to why this discrepancy exists with reasons ranging from those on Medicaid have a harder time sticking with the regimen of therapy to Medicaid doesn’t reimburse well for therapy and thus at times the only treatment option is medication.

Chris Tickner is a Pasadena psychotherapist, child therapist, and clinical supervisor practicing holistic psychotherapy, where he combines mindfulness psychotherapy,  somatic therapy, neuroscience, and good old fasion humor and compassion to form a a powerful treatment that is transformative and holistic.  There are thousands of California psychotherapists, and finding a counselor or finding a therapist can be daunting. On his website, Chris provides a primer to help you find the therapist that is perfect for you! Chris is also a Pasadena therapist specializing in anxiety psychotherapy and depression psychotherapy.

Well, that did it! I was just starting to get into the spirit of things too! The tree is up and decorated. I even put out lights this year! The holiday music is playing and the dogs are wearing their jingle collars (they really like it, seriously, they do!!). Then, I make the mistake of heading out to do some simple shopping. I figure, it’s monday, middle of the day, how crazy can it be? Yikes!!! It took me half the day to simply go to the store to buy some supplies. The parking lot was a survival of the fittest competition. Human compassion, politeness!? I think not! Every holiday shopper for themselves!!

While my painful shopping experience is a bother, it in no way compares to the real and devastating depression and anxiety many folks feel this time of year. The holidays can remind us of both happy, and not so happy times. We have intense expectations for ourselves and our families, that we should be happy, joyful, be able to get in the spirit. Yet many of us struggle with that expectation, and end up feeling down and out, depressed, and stressed. The holiday blues are upon us.

So here are some helpful (and holistic!!) tips to support you and your family as we move through this both wonderful and potentially overwhelming time of the year.

Body

Our ability to cope with stress, to be resilient in the face of overwhelming situations (like shopping!), is directly linked to how healthy we are. Most folks find that their normal regimens of care get interrupted during this time of year. Our trips to the gym, to the yoga studio, our daily runs all get pushed aside. As a psychotherapist, I notice that many of my clients take a couple weeks off during this time of year. This is usually a great idea, to take a break. But for many, taking a break at this time can be detrimental. So, do your best to stick to your daily routine. Get up at your regular hour, even if you’re not working (OK, you can sleep in on New Year’s 🙂  ). If you are on a regular excercise routine, stick to it. And if you are in therapy, or receive other supportive care, like massage, acupuncture, and reiki for example, continue to do so during this time. Heck, why not increase the care you are receiving?

In addition to our physical routine, our dietary routine takes a beating this time of year. How much sugar have you ingested this week??  Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and foods we don’t normally eat become fast friends during this time. While you don’t have to be a Grinch and refuse everything, you can enjoy the staples of the season in moderation. Do your best to stick to your normal dietary regimen while you also enjoy that extra cookie or glass of egg nog. Increase intake of vital nutrients and stress busting substances like vitamin B and Rescue Remedy. Consider a multi-vitmin.

Mind

During this time of year, I tend to remember all of the holidays of the past. Each ornament Andrea and I hang on the tree has a story to it. For many folks, these memories are not always pleasant, and can be traumatic. Remember that memories are simply thoughts. When our brain has a thought, it gets connected to a feeling, and then begins to work its way through our system, creating moods, emotions, and behaviors. This is normal and natural. However, when those thoughts are painful, like difficult holiday memories, feeling alone, not meeting your own expectations for how you should feel this time of year, this normal progression can cause us intense suffering. The antidote is mindfulness. If you have a mindfulness practice, this is the time of year to increase it, not take a break. If you don’t have a practice, consider starting one this year, as a way to connect to yourself and with the spirit of this season. All you have to do is find 5-10 minutes, sit down where you won’t be interrupted, and focus on your breath. Each time your mind begins to wander (and it will!!!), just relax and return your focus to your breath. Check out this great video of Thich Nhat Hanh on mindfulness practice!  

Spirit

What is holiday spirit? How many times have your heard someone, or yourself, say “I’m just not feeling the holiday spirit this year!” Holiday Spirit means many things to many people. It’s a religious time of year for many faiths. It’s a time of year for giving and compassion. For others its simply about the colors, sounds, and smells of this time of year. We can’t always rely on a white Christmas, or being able to be with our families. But we can create a feeling of spirit. Fill your time with the sensorial experiences of this time of year. Your ears will be happy to hear wonderful music! Turn it on! Attend a concert, or a church service! Your eyes will appreciate a spin around the neighborhood at night to see the lights. We have a drive-thru nativity in our area that is feast for our eyes and ears!!  Your tongue is just waiting to sample the tastes of the season!!  Take it in! (in moderation!)  🙂

Another big way to get into the “spirit” is to give. And I don’t just mean buying stuff for people. Give in other ways. Spend your time donating, volunteering. Serve Christmas dinner to the homeless. Go caroling! Consider giving all the money you spend on presents each year to a worthy charity on your family and friend’s behalf. One of the quickest ways to get over our own holiday blues is to make the holidays for those less fortunate than ourselves a happier and more fulfilling time!

Feel what you feel! One of the biggest contributors to stress and anxiety is our own expectation of how we should be feeling. Just feel what you are feeling. If you’re sad, go ahead and cry. The more time you spend beating yourself up about not feeling the spirit, the harder it will be to do just that. Yet, if you just allow yourself to feel, accept yourself without judgement, most likely you will start to feel the spirit.

I hope this helps in some way. As always, feel free to be in touch!

Happy Holidays!!!

Chris Tickner is a Pasadena psychotherapist, child therapist, and clinical supervisor practicing holistic psychotherapy, where he combines mindfulness psychotherapy,  somatic therapy, neuroscience, and good old fasion humor and compassion to form a a powerful treatment that is transformative and holistic.  There are thousands of California psychotherapists, and finding a counselor or finding a therapist can be daunting. On his website, Chris provides a primer to help you find the therapist that is perfect for you! Chris is also a Pasadena therapist specializing in anxiety psychotherapy and depression psychotherapy.

 “At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.” – Lao Tzu

I was recently given the honor of serving as the Topic Expert Contributor of Somatic Psychotherapy at GoodTherapy.org. Each month I’ll be contributing some new content on the subject and will share those articles here as well. Enjoy!!

What I find that many first time somatic therapy clients what to know is, what actually happens during a real session? How is Somatic Psychotherapy different from other forms of therapy? There is often a concern that because we include the body in our work, that somehow this will make things uncomfortable, or a little too out there. Therefore, I have included here a brief transcript from a recent session. I feel serves to provide a road map of sorts for a very typical somatic psychotherapy session. Keep in mind that for every somatic therapist out there, there is a unique way to do this work. No two sessions will be the same. But there are some key elements that I highlight in this session that are typical.

John is a 53 year old marketing executive. He originally came to me with complaints of depression, an increasing reliance on alcohol to feel “good,” and a life long sense of “not being good enough.” At the time of this session, John and I have been working together for about four months.

John enters the room and for the first five minutes or so we engage in chit chat, checking in with each other, exchanging pleasantries, that sort of stuff. John starts to talk about a situation at work that has left him feeling angry and nervous. He had given a presentation and felt he had done a pretty good job. In the break room just following the presentation, John’s boss approached him and asked if he was feeling alright today. A little confused, John indicated he was fine and asked why. His boss noted that John’s presentation seemed “off” and was “less polished” than usual.

While John is telling me this story, I’m both listening to the words, to the content, but I am also carefully listening to his body. I note that his breathing has increased and is coming more from his chest. His face is flushed, the muscles in his jaw are clenching, his right hand has formed a fist, and his feet are moving back and forth.

C: John, I’m curious as you tell me this story what you are noticing happening internally.

J: I’m pissed! I mean what kind of comment is that? What a jerk! (his fist comes down hard on the couch)

C: Yeah, you are pissed! Do you notice how your hand is now a fist?

J: Yeah! And my jaw is really tight.

C: Ah. Yes, it is tight. Just allow yourself to stay with all of that. Notice your breathing, allow your body to speak a little here.

This moment is an important one in any somatic session. We are moving out of talking about things, away from the content and from story telling, to mindfulness and present moment awareness. John has done this before with me, but for several sessions we worked together to help him develop this capacity to notice himself, without any judgment or need to change anything. John becomes curious about what his body is doing, and without losing the story, is able to gather important information about how the story is impacting him, not just in his thoughts, but physically and holistically as well.

J: Wow. I can’t believe how tight I am! My whole arm is tightening up.

C: Stay with that, notice what your arm wants to do.

J: It wants to pound on something! (he starts to make pounding movements with his arm. John pounds his fist a couple of times, then a long pause as he continues to be mindful.)

C: What’s happening now?

J: I feel sad too.

C: Ah, just stay with it and notice. (long pause). See if there is something familiar about this, or if there are any images, or memories.

J: (after a very long pause) Yeah. This is familiar. I’m having a memory of my dad. I’m like… seven or eight… and he is angry at me for something. Oh my God! I haven’t thought about this for years. He was angry that I didn’t catch the football. I was playing football and they passed the ball to me, and I dropped it. (John starts to cry, takes his time).

C: What is happening now in your body?

J: I’m sad, and angry. You know, that wasn’t fair! I was only a kid. (tears and anger) I didn’t do anything wrong! He had no right to be angry at me like that, did he?

C: No, he didn’t John. He really didn’t. That must have been very painful for you.

J: Yeah, it was, it is. (long pause)

C: What do you notice now?

J: My arm is relaxing. I’m thinking about Jim at the office and what he said to me. I think he was sort of like my dad in that moment.

C: Ah, yeah. Jim became your dad?

J: Yeah, and I just automatically reacted to it.

C: Makes sense. Your body wanted to protect you from that shame again, hunh?

J: Yeah. But Jim was actually being nice. He was more concerned about me than judging me. You know?

C: Yeah. Sounds like Jim really cares about you.

J: Yeah, he does. (starts to cry some)

This one short segment of John’s session outlines a very important and typical process in somatic work. We often start with whatever is happening for the person that day, something form work, from their family life, a dream, anything. We move from story telling into mindfulness and pay attention to the body, allowing it to unfold and move. From this place, new information becomes available to the client and they often make discoveries about how they function in the world. There is often a deep sense of appreciation and acceptance. As the body is allowed to move, energy that has been blocked or held for some reason, is able to move through, and we often experience relief and resolution.

This pattern can repeat several times during a session, and can include simple awareness of the body, movement, sound, reenactment, and touch.

So, in some ways, somatic work is very simple. We aren’t trying to figure out complex problems necessarily, or think our way through an issue. The problem is presented and then we create an environment in which the body can speak. All of the answers and resolutions to our problems are held within the body, we just have to be quiet enough to listen and follow.

Chris Tickner is a Pasadena psychotherapist, child therapist, and clinical supervisor practicing holistic psychotherapy, where he combines mindfulness psychotherapy,  somatic therapy, neuroscience, and good old fasion humor and compassion to form a a powerful treatment that is transformative and holistic.  There are thousands of California psychotherapists, and finding a counselor or finding a therapist can be daunting. On his website, Chris provides a primer to help you find the therapist that is perfect for you! Chris is also a Pasadena therapist specializing in anxiety psychotherapy and depression psychotherapy.

Every year around this time, as the days of summer come to a close, and school gets underway, I get a series of phone calls from concerned and panicked parents. Often they’ve received a phone call from a teacher or school counselor, or returned from a parent teacher conference, and have learned that their child is having trouble at school! It can be a painful moment. Filled with confusion and at times embarrassment, these parents reach out for help.

Problem-Child_lOne such case sticks out in my mind as a clear example of how our system for helping kids is extremely misguided, and often does more harm than good. James was an 10-year-old boy whose parents called me one October day, expressing their frustration with him, with his school, and with themselves. Up until this point, James had been a star student, was well liked by his peers and teachers, and expressed joy and satisfaction with his own progress at school. However, as he entered the fifth grade, everything seemed to change.

One day, his parents received a phone call from his new teacher, informing them that James was disruptive in the classroom, was often out of his seat and seemed to be unable to pay attention. He was observed to stare off into space, and often didn’t respond to his teacher’s prompts. Additionally he often talked out of turn without raising his hand, and was a distraction to the other children. As a quick remedy, the teacher had moved James to a desk that was away from the other kids, in the back of the room. The teacher thought he might have Attention Deficit Disorder and suggested they have him evaluated by a doctor. Both parents reported that at home James was also showing some new behaviors. He didn’t want to go to bed at his bedtime, he was often short-tempered and clingy.

The parents called me for a consultation, not wanting to have their child placed on medication. I sat down with the two of them, gathered my usual background information, and provided an overview of child behavior to the parents. When a child’s behavior changes this is a sign for us as adults to pay close attention. Without the ability to communicate what is bothering them, a child will express his fears, or angers, by acting out. In this way, child behavior becomes a code of sorts that adults must learn to decipher. What is James trying to tell us by this behavior?

We reviewed the past several weeks and I learned that James had not had the usual restful summer that he was used to. Most parents often minimize the impact significant events will have on their children, and this was no exception. They both indicated that  the summer seemed to be a pretty good one.  Jim, the father, explained that his mother had been ill for many years, and finally passed away in August. The family traveled back to her home in Chicago, and attended the wake and funeral. They both indicated that James seemed fine, didn’t really cry, and was very polite and grown up. Susan, the mother, then explained that they returned to their La Canada, CA home just in time to witness the Station Fire burn over 160,000 acres! “It was amazing. We were fine, I mean, we had to be evacuated for about three days, but it was really OK. We got all the important stuff, our pets, papers, and all piled in the car and treated it like an unexpected bonus vacation. James seemed really excited and had a great time!” 

While James appeared to be “fine” and seemed to enjoy himself or not be too significantly impacted, he clearly was, and was now showing signs of traumatic impact. Many children who go through painful, even frightening experiences, will show little if any initial signs of suffering. Like James, it might be weeks later, when confronted with a stressful experience, that these emotions will surface as behavior. What’s more, children are significantly impacted by how their parents react to various situations, and while his grandmother’s death was a great relief to the family, it was also a significant event, and both Jim and Susan responded with the expected grief, sadness and even anger. While these emotions are understood as normal to an adult, to a child, who has never experienced death, they can be terrifying. Throw in the fire and the evacuation, and you have a clear case of a child who has been overwhelmed by fear, stress and trauma.

James’ behaviors in the classroom were the gateway to understanding that he was having a hard time focusing on school because he was still trying to process the difficult experiences he had at the end of his summer. Once we figured that out, I worked with the parents to help them make room for James’s processing of his grief and fear. Art projects, games, looking at pictures of Grandma, talking about the fires, were all ways they helped James make sense of what had happened to him. I worked with James in therapy for several weeks, primarily using play therapy to help him process, express and understand his feelings. Additionally, the parents approached his teacher and explained what was going on. They asked him to be patient with James, and instead of isolating him in the back of the room, to consider moving his desk closer to him. What James needed was comfort and understanding, not punishment and shame.

This case illustrates how easy it is for teachers and parents to quickly make assumptions about a child’s behavior. If Jim and Susan had taken James to their doctor, a stimulant like Ritalin would most likely have been prescribed to help James focus in the classroom. And while that might have helped, the underlying issues of grief and trauma would have gone untreated. This is often the first step down a long road of medication adjustments, special education classrooms, Individualized Education Plans (IEP’s), non-public schools, and more.

The moral of the story? Listen to your child’s behavior, become a detective. Ask yourself what is he trying to communicate? What would make anybody act the way he is acting? Find the missing piece, figure out what the need is (ie to express underlying painful emotions), and then provide it. Once the missing experience is had, the child will begin to return to themselves, the behavior will begin to diminish and he will return to the confident, health and happy child he deserves to be.

Chris Tickner is a Pasadena psychotherapist, child therapist, and clinical supervisor practicing holistic psychotherapy, where he combines mindfulness psychotherapy,  somatic therapy, neuroscience, and good old fasion humor and compassion to form a a powerful treatment that is transformative and holistic.  There are thousands of California psychotherapists, and finding a counselor or finding a therapist can be daunting. On his website, Chris provides a primer to help you find the therapist that is perfect for you! Chris is also a Pasadena therapist specializing in anxiety psychotherapy and depression psychotherapy.

Will You Just Relax Already!

In this, the last of a four-part series on stress reduction, we will focus on reducing the harmful effects of stress by finding ways to relax! No matter how hard we work to change the way we react in stressful situations, inevitably we’ll get stressed out! We all do. That’s why it’s important to know some quick ways to relax.

Breathing exercises are considered one of the most powerful ways to reverse the stress response. By simply noticing your breath you start to relax. Try the following breathing exercise…

Slowly take in a deep breath through your nose and imagine the breath filling your tummy, actually see if you can make your abdomen get bigger as you inhale. Hold the breath for a few moments. Now exhale through your mouth. Hold again for few moments before repeating.

When we breathe in this way we trigger the relaxation response, the opposite of the stress response. Our heart and breathing rates slow, our blood pressure falls and we gain a sense of wellbeing and peacefulness. Try this the next time you’re stuck in traffic!

Another powerful tool in reducing the impact of stress is progressive relaxation. In this technique breath and awareness are combined in a process of deeply relaxing the whole body. There are tapes and CD’s available that walk you through this technique, which over time can become a powerful way to quickly and deeply relax. In a nutshell, you breathe into various areas of the body as you squeeze the muscles in that area. Hold the breath and the muscular tension for a few moments, then relax and exhale. Progressively move all the way through the body, from the feet, to the top of the head. If I can’t sleep at night, I’ll start this and usually by my tummy or lower chest, I’m out!! Give it a shot.

Some of the key components to a relaxed and healthy lifestyle include a nourishing, well-balanced diet, plenty of restful sleep, and regular physical activity. It’s also helpful to create a soothing and calm atmosphere in home. You can do this with fresh flowers, soothing music, and essential oil diffusers that give your home a relaxing aroma.

Finally, remember to take time for you. Be good to yourself! Treat yourself to a hot bath, indulge in a good book, go see a concert or art exhibit. Remember that the more you do to take care of yourself and relax, the better you will feel, and the healthier you will be!

Chris Tickner is a Pasadena psychotherapist, child therapist, and clinical supervisor practicing holistic psychotherapy, where he combines mindfulness psychotherapy,  somatic therapy, neuroscience, and good old fasion humor and compassion to form a a powerful treatment that is transformative and holistic.  There are thousands of California psychotherapists, and finding a counselor or finding a therapist can be daunting. On his website, Chris provides a primer to help you find the therapist that is perfect for you! Chris is also a Pasadena therapist specializing in anxiety psychotherapy and depression psychotherapy.

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