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5 Easy Ways to Connect to Your Child

Why is it important to connect?

With the busy schedules we face as families, it is easy to get lost in the day to day grind. Between games, dance recitals, music lessons, and never ending homework, it can be easy to forget to set aside downtime to connect with our children. Why is it so important for us to set aside time to connect with our kiddos? Because connection is at the heart of what we need as humans. We are wired to connect with those we love, to remind us of our support systems in the time of need, and to feel wanted by others. As parents, it is so important to provide this to our children. Just as we meet our child’s physical needs with food, shelter, and extracurricular activities, our children also need to have their emotional needs met.

When we feel connected, secure, and safe, our brains are better able to manage all of the input they receive throughout the day. In a connected state, we are better equipped to handle big emotions and better able to problem solve when things don’t go our way. When children feel safe, loved and secure they are able to take risks because they know that someone will be there if they need them.

Now that we talked briefly about why it is important to connect, you may be thinking, “Gosh, now I have to add another thing to my do-list?” Well, thankfully, finding ways to connect can actually be quite simple. Moments of connection don’t have to be an hour-long process, it can be just a few minutes a day. I have some suggestions below, but find what works best for your family and your schedule. You can easily adapt any of these suggestions to different times of the day, or different frequencies. I typically suggest that you try at least one of these once a week. It doesn’t have to be the same each week, and you don’t have to do all of these at once. You know your child and your family best.

Suggestions for connection:

1. Play a familiar game with your child

Yes, it’s as easy as playing a board or a card game with your child. I encourage you both to put away your phones and play your favorite game together. Whether it’s Uno, Candyland, or Go-Fish, playing a board game can encourage connection and communication between the two of you. I have found that teenagers even benefit from this approach, though they might appreciate a more challenging board or card game. Competition should be off the table with this approach. If you notice your child or teen becoming frustrated, take a break or switch to a new game. Board games are a great way to practice turn-taking, empathy and joy with each other.

2. Eat family dinner or meals together

Family meal time is a perfect way to encourage connection. There’s something natural about sitting around at the dinner table and sharing stories about one’s day over a good meal. Now, I know many of you may not be able to do this every night, and you certainly don’t have to. But try to sit down as a family at least once or twice a week. Again, turn off the TV or phones and simply sit down with one another.

3. Create a ritual on the drive to or from school

If your child is under sixteen, you are probably driving them to school or extracurricular activities which means you are probably in the car together quite often. Creating a ritual or a moment of connection can easily be adapted to your busy driving schedule. For example, on your way to school you can each name something you are excited for, something you are nervous for, and something you are hopeful for the day. One family I know listens to their favorite audio book together. Another idea is to play a familiar car game. Get creative, those long drives and waiting in the carpool lines can be an excellent time for you to connect.

4. Set aside screen-free time at least once a week

This one goes into the other suggestions, but I encourage all families to set aside 1-hour free of screen time at least once a week. This means no phones, no TV, or tablets. Encourage your child to play a game outside with you, or work on a puzzle together. Whatever it is, remove distractions from technology so that you can focus on whatever game or activity you are doing together.

5. Find a special way to connect before bedtime

Creating a ritual of connection before bedtime can not only be helpful for your relationship with each other, but also promote healthy sleep. If you have a young child, this can look like reading a bedtime story together or cuddling before bed. An older child or teen, this can be sitting down with them one-on-one and talking about their day.

Whatever method you choose, find one that works for your family. By being intentional about spending time with your child, you are giving them the signal that you are there for them and that you support them when they need you.

If you or your child are still struggling, you don’t have to navigate this alone. Reach out to us to find a therapist that best fits you and your child’s needs.

Suggested Resources:

The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired By Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

brentwood counseling associates blog

The path to a meaningful future is through your past

“What do you think of when you consider your past?”

This question was posed to me by a therapist many years ago. I wasn’t sure how to answer the question. The simple truth is that I hadn’t considered my past much at all. So I stammered something about my past being a random collection of experiences, events and relationships. At the time I was too busy to think about my past. To make matters worse, since birth I had been immersed in a culture that was future oriented. In my culture, considering the past was understood to be a waste of time. If it did not contribute to efficiency and productivity it was considered useless.

Sound familiar?

But what I have learned since then is that I don’t have a ‘past.’

I have a story.

Fast forward a bunch of years. Now I get to pose this important question to clients.

And it is important.

Here’s why: Your past defines everything about how you interpret and filter every relationship, interaction and experience. To quote Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Let’s face it: we all want to “feel better” in some way. But by engaging, learning, and studying our lives as a story, we can begin to do the hard and meaningful work of “getting well.”

Put another way, the first adventure on the path to a meaningful future is through your past.

Becoming an expert at your own story allows you to understand your life:

  • How you understand yourself and your place in the world?
  • How and why you interpret experiences the way you do?
  • Why do you do what you do?
  • What do you truly love and why?
  • What are the seats of your great loves and the anchors of your great fears?

So, where do we start?

First, it is helpful to understand that every story shares some common characteristics:

Chapters: Stories are usually divided into chapters or acts and scenes. First, divide your life into developmental chapters. For example, you may consider this framework:

  • Birth-8 years old
  • 8-12 years old
  • Middle and high school
  • College/emerging adulthood (18-30)
  • Early middle adulthood (30-40)
  • Middle adulthood (40-55)
  • Late middle adulthood (55-65)
  • Later adulthood (65+)

Feel free to use whatever framework makes sense to you and helps you to understand your life as a story.

Relationships: Aside from Tom Hanks hanging out with a volleyball on a deserted island, I can’t recall a single movie or story that did not revolve around relationships. Relationships are what define a story. The first step in understanding your life as a story is to trace the line of meaningful relationships beginning with your earliest caregivers and siblings. You may want to consider friends, teachers, coaches, neighbors and many others who you consider to have had a meaningful effect on your life. (Note: this can be both positive and negative). It is important to note that the earliest relationships and experiences tend to have a more significant effect

Experiences: Begin charting meaningful experiences as they come to mind. Again, these can be both positive and negative. Some experiences you may want to consider:

  • The birth or death of a family member or a friend
  • The beginning or end of a romantic relationship
  • Graduation from high school or college
  • Job changes
  • Illness or injury
  • A personal loss
  • Significant accomplishments

Plot twists: These are the events and circumstances that upend our understanding of how the world works. These are times when you experienced significant disorientation and disorder. These experiences almost always have a profound effect on our lives and often serve as initiation points for transition from one chapter of life to the next.

Meaning and themes: Look for themes that show up throughout these dynamics: Relationship patterns, fear, anxiety, hope and joy.

  • What events or relationships do you celebrate as meaningful and significant?
  • What do you look back on with regret and/or shame?
  • What are consistent patterns where fear or anxiety drove decisions?

This work is not for the faint of heart and should not be taken lightly. To venture back into experiences of hurt, betrayal and pain risks retraumatization. Therefore, you may want to consider being guided through this process with a skilled therapist. A therapist can accompany you and provide an empathic container to hold your experiences and partnership in creating new meaning. If you would like to learn more about this approach, this recent article will provide more information.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can become an expert of your story, contact us at Brentwood Counseling Associates. You can find out more information about me here. You can call our office at 615-377-1153 or our office manager Jane Jenkins at jane@brentwoodcounseling.com.

surface relationships

Four things to keep in mind when supporting a friend in grief

My father lost his battle with cancer 15 years ago. He was 59. One of the most confusing dynamics of his death were the varied responses and reactions of my friends. Many responses were wonderful. But many were frustrating. Some were even hurtful.

One of the more challenging aspects of grief is how to support a friend or family member who has experienced intimate loss. The good news is that there are skills and approaches that we can learn in order to be more supportive and helpful for friends in grief. Here are a few things to keep in mind as we try to support a friend who has experienced intimate loss:

1. Be in touch with our own anxieties

One of the most important aspects of supporting a friend in grief is to be aware of the ways that their grief triggers our own fears. Many of us simply don’t know what to do with grief. Which makes sense because we live in a society that goes to great lengths to avoid and deny the reality of death. When someone close to us has experienced intimate loss it brings death really close to home: After all, if tragedy can happen to them then it can happen to us, right? This can be a terrifying revelation that upends our illusions of stability, safety, predictability and control. If we don’t get in touch with our anxieties then our attempts to support can degenerate to frantic attempts to make the bereaved feel better, fix the situation or avoid it altogether.

Following my father’s death, random encounters with friends in grocery stores would often result in them awkwardly dancing around the obvious situation–talking about weather, baseball, church–anything except my recent loss. I get it. We do this because we are afraid of “bringing it up” and “making it worse.” But grief can be isolating. Avoiding the issue reinforces the sense of isolation. The antidote is to be seen and known–to have one’s reality named and honored. When supporting friends in grief we need to be aware of and manage our fears. Realistic appraisal of our own mortality is not a fun process, but it can be very healthy and even liberating.

2. Don’t try to make them ‘feel better’

I attended a funeral several years ago. I overheard someone say “if you’re sad right now, you’re really just selfish and making this more about you– because he’s just fine right now!” This and many other damaging and misguided statements are said under the guise of helping the bereaved ‘feel better.’ Some of the more common phrases that fit this criteria are:

  • “You can always have another child,”
  • “They are in a better place now,”
  • “God must have wanted another angel”
  • “At least he died doing something he loved”

Unfortunately this list can go on and on.

These ill-advised statements are often an attempt to manage one’s own fears and discomfort (see point #1). The more helpful–and challenging–thing is to simply be present and say little. Statements like “I have no words” or “I love you and I am so so sorry” tend to be much more helpful–primarily because they are true. These statements give space for the person to feel how they are feeling and not feel blamed for ‘doing it wrong.’

3. There is no ‘getting over it’ or ‘moving on’

When a friend is in pain we naturally want to make it better. The hard truth is that we are forever changed by some of the things that happen to us. When it comes intimate loss there is no “getting over it” or getting “back to normal.”

In her book “It’s ok that you’re not ok: Meeting grief and loss in a culture that doesn’t understand,” grief expert Megan Devine writes: “If we talk about recovery from loss as a process of integration, of living alongside grief instead of overcoming it, then we can begin to talk about what might help you survive.” Eventually we can take steps forward–not in ‘moving past’ the grief, but in moving forward with the grief. The goal, ultimately, is not to ‘get back to normal’ but learning to eventually carry grief as we begin to move forward.

4. Be a “credible witness”

Grief expert, David Kessler, argues that the most important dynamic for grief to be processed well is empathic connection with another person who is willing to accompany the bereaved in their grief. Keller calls these people “credible witnesses” because they are able to be present and bear witness to the searing pain of traumatic loss without trying to fix it or “make it better.” Being with a person in pain is not easy. It forces us to confront our own fears. It is inconvenient. We may feel rejected. The truth is that nothing we do or say will make it better in the short term. A person in grief needs space to feel how they feel and to be seen and known without feeling that they are ‘doing it wrong’ or that they should feel better.

Grief is a complicated process that demands time, patience, understanding and active work for the bereaved as well as supporters. My hope is that more of us will grow in our ability to accompany friends and family through the searing pain of intimate loss. By becoming a ‘credible witness’ our friends will find a softer place to rest and be given the healing gift of empathy and presence.

Additional Resources:

There are many helpful books. Two that I recommend are:

Additionally, there are many good podcasts and Ted talks. I recommend:

  • The messy truth about grief” – Ted Talk by Nora McInerny
  • The “Grief Out Loud” podcast by the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families These interviews include survivors, experts and others who have experienced grief in myriad ways.
A child sitting with his parents while a educational professional performs a psychoeducational evaluation.

Psychoeducational Evaluations 101

Have you been told that your child could benefit from a psychoeducational evaluation? If so, you might be wondering what a psychoeducational evaluation is, why your child might need one, and what’s involved with getting one. If you’re wanting to learn more about this kind of testing, we hope you’ll find this information helpful in deciding whether it’s right for your child.

The assessment team at Brentwood Counseling Associates strives to help parents understand their child’s patterns of strengths and weaknesses, identify barriers to success, and gain an understanding of their child’s unique style of learning. We currently offer comprehensive psychoeducational evaluations and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) evaluations for children, adults, and everyone in between. Psychoeducational evaluations are useful in that they highlight a child’s intellectual abilities (including verbal comprehension, visual-spatial reasoning, fluid reasoning, working memory, and processing speed) and reveal a pattern of how they learn in their own unique ways. They also include assessment of academic achievement to assist the clinician in ruling out learning disabilities such as reading disorders and dyslexia, writing disorders and dysgraphia, and math disorders and dyscalculia. This specific type of evaluation further includes assessment of the child’s social-emotional functioning and behavior to help identify disorders such as ADHD and those related to anxiety and depression.

Perhaps the referral concern includes issues such as difficulty focusing, poor concentration, or irritability. A teacher may report to a parent that they observe their student to be anxious about their school work or that it takes them longer to complete their assignments. A parent may notice that their child struggles with friendships or that they are argumentative. The family may report to their pediatrician that their child has been more withdrawn in school and at home and that they spend more time worrying. A tutor may observe that their student struggles with retaining information and with reading comprehension. It is through careful examination of the child’s presenting symptoms, developmental history, academic performance, and data collected in an assessment (including parent and teacher rating forms and questionnaires) that our clinicians can begin to tease out concerns and make a determination about differential diagnoses (e.g., ADHD versus a learning disorder). Psychoeducational evaluations can provide answers about what specific challenges children experience and can assist clinicians in guiding academic supports such as accommodations and/or modifications if needed.

Our comprehensive psychoeducational evaluations begin with a detailed interview with the clinician in which the family can express their concerns and provide helpful information about their child’s developmental, medical, social-emotional, and academic history. This interview is followed by approximately two hours of testing during the first session and three hours of testing during the second session. During that time, the clinician works with the child to gain an understanding about the issues and to make a determination about what tests are needed. An assessment battery generally consists of individually administered, standardized measures such as an IQ test, an academic achievement test, rating scales, and a child interview. Feedback sessions occur within two to three weeks in which the parents meet with the clinician to review a detailed, comprehensive report together and discuss recommendations and potential adjunct therapy referrals. The parent is able to ask questions, and time is spent with them to make sure they understand their child’s overall pattern of strengths and weaknesses.

Contact Brentwood Counseling Associates today if you’d like to explore psychoeducational evaluation for your child.

Is Teletherapy right for you? Pros and Cons

Is Teletherapy right for you? Pros and Cons

Prior to the pandemic, teletherapy was something that was available but not being utilized to the extent it is now. The rise of COVID-19 compelled us all to explore virtual access to meet a number of our needs. Now, many more individuals have had first-hand experience of the benefits and efficacy of teletherapy. In fact, many now prefer it. Below we will explore the pros and cons of teletherapy as well as discussing what to expect in order to help you decide if it is right for you.

The Pros:

Efficacy

Does it work? A very reasonable and common question is whether or not Teletherapy video sessions are as effective as in-person therapy options. According to the American Psychological Association research on teletherapy has been ongoing since 1960. Findings show that video teletherapy is as effective as in-person sessions in treating a wide variety of psychological disorders such as Anxiety, Depression, PTSD and Adjustment Disorders to name a few. Though research is ongoing, it is safe to say that psychologists agree in teletherapy being an effective form of psychotherapy treatment.

Convenience

Who doesn’t love a convenient option? Many people struggle with finding time to schedule sessions due to busy work days or school conflicts. Teletherapy increases access to many by eliminating commute times. Many people are able to find an hour in their schedule to make time for a session while avoiding the time commitment of travel time.

Access

Limited therapy access in your area? Rural areas sometimes have limited access to therapy services and are forced to undergo long travel times to find accommodations for themselves or their children. This can interfere with work and school responsibilities making the therapy process unnecessarily stressful. Unforeseeable instances of inclement weather or minor sickness can sometimes create barriers for therapy attendance. Teletherapy can provide a solution to these issues through creating access.

Comfort

Feeling anxious about your first session? While this is completely normal, feeling anxious about your first therapy session can sometimes be enough to cause people to forgo treatment altogether. Being able to curl up on your couch, with your dog and still have a session with a professional can make the process seem less daunting for some. As long as you are able to secure a private location in your home or office for an hour you are able to have a confidential and comfortable teletherapy session.

The Cons:

Therapeutic environment

You are responsible for creating your own therapeutic environment. Sometimes people are distracted during a session by their dog barking in the background, children coming into their room to ask a question, the load of unfolded laundry in the corner, etc. It can be tempting to multitask during sessions and this can unfortunately interfere with therapeutic connection and/or progress. These distractions can usually be problem solved however, for some, this a deal breaker no longer making teletherapy the right choice.

Difficulty finding a private location

Similar to the issue described above, some feel anxious about having a private location to talk with their therapist virtually. Therapists are legally and ethically bound to comply with HIPAA privacy guidelines, which ensures they are the only party present in their location during your sessions. However, sometimes adults and teens feel as though they are unable to ensure their own private location away from listening ears.

Technology

One of the expected downfalls of internet communication is that there is always a chance of poor connection or even lost connection all together. This can definitely make it difficult to build rapport or work through therapeutic content when it occurs. Even if your telehealth therapist has a plan in place in case you do get disconnected, such as continuing over the phone or troubleshooting the issue, it can still be a frustrating barrier to treatment if it occurs consistently. Having a strong internet connection in general is a necessity to be able to participate in teletherapy services and should be considered.

May not be appropriate for all presenting issues

A very important item to note is that teletherapy is not appropriate for everyone who is seeking teletherapy services. Some psychiatric illnesses may be too severe or require more thorough monitoring making teletherapy insufficient to meet their needs. This is something that a teletherapist should be able to assess at the initial session in order to determine whether they can continue to see you based on presenting issues. At this point your teletherapist will be able to refer you to someone more appropriate to meet your needs.

What to expect in your first session?

The first step is to reach out to a therapist you’ve identified who offers teletherapy to set up an initial intake appointment.

In that first appointment your therapist will review confidentiality, potential barriers to teletherapy treatment and how to troubleshoot connection issues. The therapist will then begin getting to know you and gathering presenting issues, background information and what you may be looking for from treatment. This will ensure you and the therapist are a good fit.

Follow up appointments will be scheduled at the end of sessions and payment will most likely be collected at the end of the appointment. In some cases, a clinic manager may have already asked to place a card on file for you to aid in the convenience of payment.

If you are interested in beginning teletherapy services Brentwood Counseling Associates would love to assist you. We have a number of therapists offering both in person and teletherapy options. Whether you are seeking services for yourself or for your child it’s likely we have someone who can help. For more information or to schedule your first session please give us a call at 615-377-1153 to talk to our office manager, Jane Jenkins. Jane has been with the practice for more than 20 years and is great at helping you think through your needs and choose an appropriate therapist.

A woman standing on a dock overlooking a lake on a sunny winter day.

Maximizing Wellbeing During the 2020 Holiday Season

You might be wondering if that’s even possible. 2020 has been a challenge, to say the least. There’s no doubt that it’s left a lot of us feeling increased loneliness, isolation, worry, boredom, and frustration. Nothing about this year has felt normal, and most of us have had to make at least some adjustments.

Fortunately, it’s gone relatively well for some. But others have seen their mental health decline due to the lack of social support, fears about health and financial security, and the prolonged loss of our old way of life. And for those who’ve lost loved ones or jobs due to the pandemic, or have worked the front lines non-stop, things might be feeling particularly hopeless. Anxiety and depression are on the uptick, both for those who’ve wrestled with them previously, and for those who never have.

Under normal circumstances, the holidays can serve as a buffer against emotional struggles, offering folks the chance to spend meaningful time with family and friends and renew their hope and optimism for better things to come in the new year. But this time of the year can also be challenging for those who don’t experience joy during this season. For people who’ve suffered a significant loss, for example, or who are grappling with ongoing illness, addiction, or strained family relationships, the holidays only serve as a reminder of the things they don’t have.

Whatever the holidays mean for you under normal circumstances, you’ll likely have to adjust to a different – 2020 – version of them. If the year has already left you feeling stressed, you might be wondering how you’ll get through this season with your wellbeing intact. Here are a few ideas.

Connect with Yourself

When was the last time you checked in with yourself about how you’re doing? We’ve all been burdened with a keen awareness that things aren’t right this year, and the holidays will probably only serve to reinforce that. But how often do you examine and identify exactly what you’re feeling, and more importantly, allow yourself to express it? This kind of emotional catharsis is key to good mental health because it keeps things from building up and boiling over, or showing up in the form of depression or anxiety. It can also prevent unhealthy coping mechanisms such as addiction, which often arise through efforts to numb difficult feelings.

You might choose to deeply connect with your feelings on your own by journaling, or with a trusted friend or family member or a helping professional. Or you might find that you resonate more with an artistic form of emotional expression such as painting, singing, or dancing. However it is that you get in touch with your feelings and move them outside of yourself, try to prioritize doing it. And remember to take good care of yourself afterward. Emotional work is hard work, and you deserve to reward yourself. So make a plan to do something rejuvenating as a follow-up. This will replenish your emotional reserve, and make you more likely to engage in such emotional catharsis again.

It’s important to note that if connecting deeply with your emotions leaves you feeling in immediate crisis, please call the Tennessee Statewide Mental Health Crisis Line at 855-CRISIS-1 (855-274-7471).

Connect with Others

During this time of suggested isolation, it’s more important than ever to prioritize quality connection with others. You might not be able to physically be with family and friends this holiday season, so you’ll need to be extra intentional about making your virtual interactions meaningful. Whereas moments together in “normal” years might have been filled with small talk and shared activities where you’re not really connecting very deeply, consider packing your shorter interactions with more meaningful communication. A stronger emotional closeness such as this could go a long way in making the physical distance more tolerable.

For example, you might ask those you care about to share with you what they’ve truly been through this year; find out about their struggles and where they’ve found unexpected joy. Ask them if they consider this year to be the hardest one they’ve lived through, or if some other circumstance in their past was more challenging. Share with each other your coping mechanisms and explore what you wish you were doing a better job with.

Or tell someone who’s really important to you what you’re grateful for in your relationship with them. You might not often do this, but it can give definition to the more ambiguous good feelings you get when you’re with them. It will give them some insight into the special qualities they bring to the relationship, and help you understand the things you find essential in one. You’ll both likely learn a lot about yourselves and about your relationship, too.

With older relatives, consider finding out more about their childhood or what their lives were like when they’re the same age you are now. Or ask what their younger hopes and dreams were, or how they ended up following a particular career path or hobby. Find out if there’s anything they wish they’d known at your age or done differently. In learning so much about someone else, you might be surprised to find that you also learn something about yourself.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

Since there’s not been much normalcy this year, why expect the usual things of yourself? Especially during the holidays, it’s easy for our self-expectations to become perfectionistic in nature. Instead, strive toward making them as realistic as possible. And given that it is 2020, after all, perhaps even expect quite a bit of deviation from the norm. If old holiday traditions are scrapped, try to consider this year as an opportunity to develop new ones – and look forward to future years when you can reflect on this one and be grateful that you made it through.

Practice gratitude around the things you’re thankful are still a part of your life. Remember that this season of our lives is temporary. It’s easier to maintain flexibility when we have faith that at some point, things will return to normal. And break your forward-thinking into manageable chunks – get through one afternoon or day at a time instead of thinking in terms of weeks or months. You’ll feel much more accomplishment and much less overwhelmed.

And if you’re grieving a significant loss this season, allow yourself to feel the sadness around it. Remember to engage in plenty of replenishing self-care, and give yourself permission to do this holiday season differently than usual. Remain flexible, doing only the holiday activities you have the energy and emotional reserve for – not necessarily all the ones you’ve done in the past. And consider honoring the loss as part of your holiday tradition this year. Acknowledging it, as painful as it might feel in the moment, can be a significant part of your grieving process.

If you’ve tried everything you can think of and you’re still feeling burdened with the weight of 2020 this holiday season, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone in the helping profession. Our therapists at Brentwood Counseling Associates are currently offering both in-person and virtual counseling sessions to support you during this time. Sometimes it’s just too hard to do it all on your own, and that’s where we come in. So please reach out and let us know how we can help.

mental health and covid-19

Mental Health and COVID-19: What’s Normal in the New Normal?

The new normal. Mental health and COVID-19. If you’re wondering how to optimize wellness during the current pandemic, you’re not alone. Over the past few weeks, many of us have shifted to working, learning, grocery shopping, exercising, and hair cutting from home. Instead of spending time in person with friends, family, and co-workers, we talk at our phone and computer screens to stay in touch. The days blend into each other now that we have no places to go or people to see, and we do our best to put some sort of structure to them. And in the time of COVID-19, we consider ourselves lucky if those are our biggest concerns. Some have experienced much more devastating changes due to the loss of jobs, health, and even life. They’ve lost everything, and fear for how much worse it will get before it gets better. This would have all seemed unbelievable just a couple of months ago, and yet, it’s where we find ourselves.

It’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things for all of us, whether it’s simply the loss of our old way of life, or a much more tragic one. And during these times, it can be helpful to understand what we’re going through in the context of grief. When we think of loss in the traditional sense, we think of the death of a loved one or the end of a significant relationship. But our feelings and reactions to this pandemic are much like what we go through when we grieve. We’re grieving the loss of the way things used to be. And just as some people have a harder time working through the grief process, some folks are finding it harder to adapt to the loss of our old way of life. In this article, we’ll explore some of the normal, common reactions to our new reality, and identify some red flags to watch out for. We’ll also offer a few suggestions about how to grieve the loss of the old normal, and shift into the new one, in a healthy way.

Mental Health and COVID-19

Denial, Shock, and Disbelief

Much like a sudden and unexpected death, the drastic changes we had to make during the month of March seemed to happen overnight. We were caught off guard, and a sense of shock and disbelief set in. We were hopeful that schools and sporting events might start back up at best, in a couple of weeks, and at worst, maybe a month. In those first few days, we just couldn’t fathom that we might be in this for the long haul. The idea that this virus would be so contagious that we’d all need to wall ourselves off from the rest of society seemed like something from a blockbuster science fiction film, not from 21st-century America.

But it wasn’t unlike the denial phase of grief, when we find it hard to believe that a loss is real. Imagine the person, for example, who, soon after a breakup, holds out hope for a reconciliation. When a new way of being is too painful for us to bear, it takes some time to absorb the reality of it. And this denial phase of grief seems to have happened to a lot of us during those early days of quarantine.

But denying that things are different keeps us from doing the things we need to do to stay healthy – in the age of COVID-19, physical distancing, or washing your hands, for example. It can also delay our transition to a new normal, and keep us in a holding pattern of sorts that prevents us from developing new routines. Part of good mental health is having the flexibility to create new versions of our old routines when we’re forced to change our daily lives. For example, just because you can’t go to the gym for six weeks doesn’t mean you have to be a couch potato the whole time. Your new exercise routine might not look much like your old one, but the ability to find ways to approximate it is vital to transitioning into your new normal. Taking a flexible approach when shifting each part of your daily routine is one way to make the overall change seem less overwhelming.

Getting Stuck

As we made the initial adjustment to our new routines, many of us found the extra time relaxing. No more drive time meant we could stay in bed a little longer and skip ironing our pants. Some of us even scrapped the professional look altogether and went straight to sweatpants and ball caps – relaxation at its finest! Hours upon hours at home also lends itself to binge watching TV shows or movies, often snacking while doing so. Downtime is a critical piece of optimal mental health, and many of us weren’t getting enough of it until now. There’s something to be said for our newfound comfort with presenting our “real” selves to the world – long, graying, messy hair, and all. Letting go of our old pretenses around image is a sign of vulnerability, which allows us to connect more deeply with others. Because we’re getting a glimpse into the real world of our colleagues, friends, and family members, we may end up feeling closer to them, because we can see that they’re much like us.

But what happens when the media binges go on so long that we miss sleep or meals, or fall down on the job? Or when one day blends into another so much so that we lose track of hygiene and stop showering or brushing our teeth? These patterns are easy to slip into, and are very common during the grief process. When we’ve lost a critical part of our old way of life, it’s not unusual to get stuck “waiting” for things to return to normal. But putting everything on hold is a signal that adaptation to the new normal isn’t going so well.

Having balance and structure to the seemingly endless days is crucial to maintaining good mental health during these times. You don’t have to create a down-to-the-minute schedule and stick to it; remember that the point is to be flexible during this time. But having some general expectations for each day isn’t a bad thing. It may be helpful to think about this, for example, in terms of physical health, work, and relaxation. A goal might be to aspire to include some work, some rest/relaxation, some movement, and adequate sleep and nutrition. This is just a starting place, though. Think about what’s important to you (spirituality is one example that comes to mind), and consider how that might fit into your daily plan around balance.

Going into Overdrive

What about when your problem is not doing too little, but doing too much? With calendars cleared of extracurricular and social activities, hours are suddenly opened up to devote to those long-delayed household projects. Backs of cabinets and closets have been cleaned out. Lawns are immediately immaculate. And pantries and desk drawers have been organized. Many of us have even taken up new hobbies or returned to old ones. It’s felt good that we’ve been able to make the most of these strange, scary new times by being productive. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But for some, along with all this new productivity came the expectation that they should be doing something fruitful with the extra time, all the time.

It’s not uncommon for people who are grieving to go to such an extreme after experiencing a significant loss. We see a lot of folks who throw themselves into work as a way to cope during the grief process. Staying busy is a way to distract ourselves from painful feelings about the loss. It’s also a way to feel like we’re taking back some control over our lives when it seems like everything has spun out of control. But that busy-ness itself can also spiral out of control, to the point that our mental health suffers. We can start using activities to push down our true feelings of sadness about the loss. Or we can start basing our self-worth on our productivity, feeling guilt and shame when we’re not getting enough done.

It’s important during these times to examine our motives for checking off to-do list after to-do list, and to check in on what emotions we might be using those activities to avoid. Such check-ins with ourselves and others about how we’re really doing with all these changes are vital to maintaining good mental health in this new normal. Don’t be afraid to identify and express whatever you’re feeling, whether on your own through journaling, for example, or with another person. If there’s not anyone in your life with whom you would feel comfortable doing this, please consider reaching out to a trusted professional. From counselors to clergy members, there are people ready to help.

Other Suggestions for Finding a Healthier New Normal

In addition to the suggestions given already, consider limiting time spent reading about the pandemic. It’s good to have information and be up-to-date on the latest recommendations. But given the tragic nature of much of the news these days, information overload can leave you feeling helpless, hopeless, and scared.

Not only can placing parameters on the time you spend consuming COVID-19 information help, but so can giving back. It can easily feel like our sense of control has been robbed from us these days. But helping others, and feeling like you’re really making a difference, can bring it back. Making masks, taking part in a quarantine birthday parade, joining in on a big round of applause for our health care providers, and donating money or food to a food bank are just some examples of ways people have been volunteering their time or resources.

And if you already struggle with stress management or mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, or addiction, or if you’re going through an additional loss during this time, you’ll need to take extra good care of yourself right now. If you need help finding someone to talk to, please don’t hesitate to contact us at Brentwood Counseling Associates. We’d be happy to help you determine who’d be a good fit for your needs and situation. Whether it’s someone in our practice or somewhere else, we just want to be sure you’re getting the support you need during this time.

Premarital Counseling: Starting a Healthy New Relationship

Premarital Counseling: Starting a Healthy Relationship

Congratulations on your engagement! Getting engaged is a thrilling first step toward a new life together with your partner. After the proposal, couples can become consumed with planning their perfect wedding. The details often become stressful and create new tension around wedding planning. There is a lot to consider: your dress, the invite list, who will be the best man, what song will be your first dance, what food should you serve, what is the budget, and more. One item, however, that should be on the top of your to-do list is Premarital Counseling.

Premarital Counseling is the first step to starting a new healthy relationship. This type of therapy allows the couple to discuss and work on strengthening communication skills, setting realistic expectations, and understanding what is important to each member of the couple. This is an opportunity to create a vision for the future healthy marriage. Below are 5 reasons why you should consider Premarital Counseling as your first step in your wedding planning.

  1. Premarital Counseling creates space to make sure you are both on the same page. Stress and fears can create a lot of tension for new couples. This stress could develop from wedding planning, tension between what the new in-laws expect, or what type of ceremony you each want to have. Stress could also surround the budget or how the new couple will handle finances or debt. Beyond stress, couples carry fears into any new relationships. The “what ifs” (Is he going to always love me? What if she does not want children? Can I trust him again? How can I deal with her family?) often linger in the back of your mind. Premarital Counseling offers the couple a safe place to voice their fears and stress and help the couple begin to understand how each person copes with stress and what they need from their partner.
  1. Premarital Counseling helps the couple know what each person is bringing into the marriage. Some of the most important work a new couple can do is understand how growing up in their own family creates norms and expectations that will influence the new marriage. Couples need to study each person’s family of origin (How was affection shown growing up? What about discipline? How did your family define success? What are important traditions of your family and how does it compare to your partner’s family traditions?). While you are not tied to live just like your family of origin, the past may influence you in how you view the family or marriage. In Premarital Counseling, a trained therapist can help the new couple navigate these past themes and create discussion on what the new couple values from their past.
  1. Communication and the couple’s “rules of engagement” need to be a part of any Premarital Counseling. In Premarital Counseling, you can grow your communication skills and learn to identify your conflict cycle. Together, you will explore what are the common areas of conflict, and what does each partner need for a positive outcome. The goal is for the new couple to develop their own “rules of engagement” as well as begin to see the conflict cycle before it starts.
  1. Premarital Counseling also explores the relationship for strengths and growth areas. Couples will learn where they currently excel as well as areas where they can improve. This focus will help a couple set and manage expectations and roles in the relationship. It is important to explore how each person in the couple views marital roles. Premarital Counseling also allows time for the couple to name roles they enjoy and roles where they are uncomfortable. This discussion will aid in setting a couple’s expectations about how decision making and responsibilities will be shared.
  1. Creating a new vision. Premarital Counseling is a time for visioning and exploring what the couple is looking forward to and dreaming. Beyond their favorite traditions and expectations from their family of origin, Premarital Counseling offers space to voice shared goals and hopes for the new relationship. Premarital Counseling can be a fun time to dream big, name new traditions you hope to start in the new marriage, and name values your healthy marriage will stand on.

Click here for more information about premarital counseling at Brentwood Counseling Associates.

gift giving stress

Gift Giving: Beat the Stress and Maintain the Joy of the Season

Stressed to find the best gift during the Christmas season?

Christmas is a holiday of joy and cheer. Many of us use it as an opportunity to express how much we care for their family and friends through warm wishes, gatherings, and gift giving.

The holiday season is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but it can easily go from Christmas cheer to Holiday stress. Finding the perfect gifts, attending all of the festive activities, and trying to fit it all in our holiday budget can take a toll.

So how do we prevent our joyous giving from turning into overspending pressures and longing for the season to be behind us?

Why do we enjoy giving?

Let’s look into the psychology behind the pressures to give and why we are so compelled year after year to immerse ourselves into finding the perfect gift, even if it brings on unwanted stress.

According to research we give for many reasons. We give to show gratitude, empathy, and love. We also give to increase relationship connections and because it makes us feel good.

Dave Ramsey says that the act of giving causes our brain to release ‘feel good hormones’. He mentions the phenomenon of the ‘giver’s glow’ which is that feeling of joy we get from showing generosity toward other people. Generosity comes with so many advantages; not only to those on the receiving end, but to those doing the giving too. Generosity has also been shown to reduce stress and help counteract depressive symptoms, says Ramsey.

There is a great sense of satisfaction when seeing the expression on the face of someone you’ve given a gift to. Its a way to express feelings when you can’t find the words. Giving is a way to say, “I’m thinking of you and you matter to me.”

When gift giving gets stressful

Even though giving makes us feel good, there’s definitely a tipping point. What happens when we start to lose the joy in giving and it becomes a stressor?

Gift-giving can be a mood booster and create balance. However, it can get stressful when you’re struggling to find the perfect gift for friends and family. It’s difficult when trying to find a gift that’s an affordable, thoughtful gift and within our holiday budget. I think the pressure is also surrounding the fact that we recognize gifts are symbolic, so we tend to obsess over the meaning we are trying to convey.

How to maintain the joy and pleasure in gift giving

Here are some helpful tips to remain mindful of what’s important about gifting and how to maintain joy this Christmas season.

Keep it simple

Not all gifts have to have a huge monetary value. If you enjoy spending extra on someone, go for it. Although, before you make a large purchase ask yourself, “Am I buying this because it’s more expensive or because I feel it’s what they would truly prefer?” The most meaningful gifts are sometimes homemade. In a society obsessed with commercialism, it can be refreshing to offer something more personal. Some example may be handmade cards, homemade essential oils, fresh baked goods, or wooden toys. If DIY-ing isn’t your thing, you can always gift your time such as a car wash or free babysitting.

Create some giving boundaries

For many of us, this is the season to splurge and indulge. However, it can be helpful to create some boundaries as it relates to giving to maintain our sanity and our bank accounts. So, be realistic but stick to your holiday budget as much as possible. Things like setting a budget for individual gifts and tracking your spending can be helpful.

Practice gratitude

Gift giving is not the only way we can show appreciation to others during the holiday season. Write a gratitude letter. This letter can be written to a significant person who made a positive difference in your life. This can have the same effect as a holiday gift letting them know “I am thinking of you and you matter.” Describe in specific terms what the person did and why you’re grateful.

Remember what’s important

According to an article by The Society of Happy People, when people are asked what makes them happiest about the holidays, most said connection with family and friends. So, let yourself off the hook a little bit. If you are able to spend some quality time with your loved ones, know that your presence is just as valuable as a gift.

We gain happiness around the holidays from spending time with loved ones by giving gifts, sharing meals and attending holiday festivities. It helps to remember that the holiday season is about being with the people we care about, not about giving gifts, unless giving gifts is what makes us happy.

Explore ways to turn teen anxiety into resilience at Brentwood Counseling Associates.

Teen Anxiety: Why It Can Be Necessary and What Can Be Gained

Every living creature experiences anxiety. Anxiety is necessary for survival and adaptation. Normal teen anxiety is common, and generally short-lived. In today’s fast paced world, however, we live in a culture that suggests any anxiety is bad and a person who struggles with it, including adolescents, is weak or faulty. Society is so eager to diagnose a person with an official disorder.

Teenagers have been taught the need to be perfect. They have received participation trophies for their whole lives. Social media is used as a tool to present an edited/photoshopped sense of perfection. Many students get to retake their test in school to increase their GPA. We have created people who have never experienced failure. When one has been protected and has never struggled to achieve, they are often unequipped to handle the smallest mistakes later in life. These first failures can be crippling and can lead to catastrophic feelings once the safety nest of parental protection is removed.

Yet there are many positives once you learn to embrace your anxiety or face your nervousness. Studies have shown how the power of facing adversity can create resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to overcome challenges of any kind. The mastery of resiliency takes time and training. It is especially important for teenagers to have safe places where they can experiment with failing and facing their fears/anxieties.

3 Proven Ways to Deal with Teen Anxiety

SHARE INTENTIONALLY – Create a space for teenagers to share both successes and failures as well as opportunities to see others (more importantly adults) talk about their ups and downs. This expands a teen’s view of normal anxiety and overcoming failure, and can take place at the dinner table, a small group setting, or during prayer time.

HIGHLIGHT STRENGTHS – Find ways to highlight a teenager’s gifts. Too often, teenagers can overly magnify their smallest perceived flaws. Highlighting strengths over weaknesses, teens learn how to overcome anxiety and stress brought on by a hyper focus on the negative. We all have many different talents that are unique to each of us. Helping a teenager name their gift(s) allows them to see more than the negatives. The second part of this step is to brainstorm with them ways for the teenager to use these gifts in their everyday lives. Be specific. Challenge them to find ways to engage with their gifts daily and celebrate them when they do use them, even if it does not work out as planned.

NORMALIZE & FOSTER MENTAL TOUGHNESS – Remind teenagers that it is okay to have bad days and being mental strong is not about having it together all the time. Help them see past our society’s unhealthy need for perfection to learn that anxiety can be seen as an opportunity to grow rather than a threat or personal flaw. Mental toughness and resiliency are strengthened by learning to embrace anxiety/uncomfortableness and take action anyway. The more often a person steps into their challenges, the stronger and more confident they can become.

Ready to schedule an appointment? Contact Brentwood Counseling Associates and connect with one of our experienced therapists.

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