Monthly Archives: August 2018

The therapy behind play therapy

By Bethany Bray August 24, 2018

Ashley Wroton, a licensed professional counselor (LPC), says parents of her young clients have told her that pediatricians sometimes make comments suggesting that they try “real” therapy with their child rather than play therapy.

“Play therapy is real therapy,” says Wroton, a registered play therapist who works with clients ages 3-12 at a group outpatient practice in Hampton, Virginia. “Play is the medium through which the therapy occurs. … The play helps them open up to make better connections.”

The idea that play therapy isn’t a wholly serious or legitimate approach to therapy is a misconception with which play therapists often contend — including among other helping professionals, says Jeff Cochran, a professor of counselor education and head of the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling at the University of Tennessee. Perhaps understandably, those not trained in the theory might be skeptical of the effectiveness of allowing a child to explore a room full of art supplies, stuffed animals and toys for the length of the therapy session. However, Cochran explains, under the watchful eyes of a play therapist, the toys are a medium through which the child communicates, learns, self-discovers, shares experiences and forms a trusting therapeutic relationship. The play, he asserts, serves simply as a bridge to therapy.

“Because we refer to it as play, [people assume] it’s supposed to be all light and easy for the child. But, no, it’s work,” says Cochran, a member of the American Counseling Association.

Defining play therapy

The fourth edition of The Counseling Dictionary, published by ACA, defines play therapy as the “use of play as a means of establishing rapport, uncovering what is troubling a person (often a child), and bringing about a resolution.”

Under the broad umbrella of play therapy are a number of focused methods and approaches, ranging from child-centered, filial and dyadic to animal-assisted play therapy. Although most often associated with children, play therapy can also be used in varying forms with teenagers and adults, as well as with children and their parents or their caretakers together. It can also be used in conjunction with more traditional therapy methods such as cognitive behavioral, Adlerian, Gestalt and narrative therapies.

However, simply having some toys in a therapy office or encouraging clients to draw or play with blocks as they talk with a counselor is not play therapy, stresses Dee Ray, an LPC and director of the Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas. The 2014 ACA Code of Ethics emphasizes that practitioners should undergo “appropriate education, training and supervised experience” to become fully competent in a specialty area such as play therapy before using it in practice. Practitioners can also obtain special play therapy credentials (such as the registered play therapist credential) through training, supervision and other requirements. These credentials provide practitioners additional credibility and may be preferred by certain employers or clients, Ray explains.

The process

Play therapy generally begins with a period of observation and assessment by the counselor, followed by work to process and focus on challenges the practitioner has identified based on cues the client exhibits during play.

Wroton starts therapy by talking with her child client’s parents or caregivers to hear what they believe the presenting issue is. After first watching the child play on his or her own, Wroton conducts a session in which the child and adult caregivers (or other family members living in the home with the child) play together so she can observe how they interact. Afterward, she talks with the parents or caregivers about what she noticed.

Play therapists learn much through observation, including how the child handles separation from the caregiver when the child is brought into the therapy room, Wroton says. Some children are clingy or start crying when the parent leaves, whereas others don’t seem to mind at all. This provides play therapists cues about the child’s level of attachment.

Other cues can be found in how clients play with objects in the playroom. For example, clients with anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors or control issues are often very structured in their play, Wroton says. They might engage in organizing behaviors rather than playful play. She remembers one young boy who gravitated toward arranging the stuffed animals by category: jungle animals, farm animals, aquatic animals and so on.

At the same time, Wroton says, practitioners need to watch from session to session to see if clients’ play behaviors change at all. At first, organizing behaviors might be a way for clients to soothe themselves or to create order because they’re nervous. But if those same behaviors continue across sessions, they could be an indication of anxiety, autism, past trauma or other issues.

Most important, each client in play therapy will need a tailored approach and a different degree of involvement from the counselor, Wroton says. She notes that some of her clients are very independent while playing, hardly making eye contact with her as she makes observations and asks questions, whereas others invite her to play with them.

Play can run the gamut from imaginative to soothing or sensory, such as child clients painting or placing their hands in water or sand elements. As clients explore and play, Wroton narrates with questions such as “I wonder why this toy is doing that?” or “I notice that you don’t invite me to play. Do you invite other friends to play?”

In imaginative and role-play scenarios, Wroton might ask her child clients, “What could have gone differently?” or “What do you wish had gone differently?” Their answers, along with the scene they have acted out previously, can provide clues about the issues troubling these children. For example, repeatedly arranging toy figures with a “bad guy” in the scene might indicate that a child is struggling with trauma or violence from his or her past.

Wroton says she determines the course of sessions “once I learn how they [the children] do the work and how engaged they are. … I use the dynamic I see in session with them. I use my narration to challenge their thought process, make observations and ask questions. [I] guide and tease at those threads I see coming out.”

The power of play

A quote from play therapy researcher and author Garry Landreth is often used to explain the method’s effectiveness: “In the play therapy experience, toys are like the child’s words, and play is the child’s language.”

In addition to speaking a child’s language, play therapy provides a supportive, therapeutic environment and, therefore, an incubator for learning and healing, Cochran says. “When a therapist is reaching out to the child in kindness, [the child] will gradually open up. It makes all the rest of the pieces work from that therapeutic relationship core,” he says. “They cherish the undivided attention that for some adults might be too intense.”

Cochran and his wife, Nancy, both specialize in child-centered play therapy and together present trainings and workshops on the topic. They co-led an education session titled “Growing play therapy up for older children, adolescents and adults” at the ACA 2018 Conference & Expo in Atlanta this past spring.

“Once the child knows that the therapy hour is a place where they are safe, a spark is lit,” says Nancy, an ACA member and a trainer and consultant in child-centered play therapy with the National Institute for Relationship Enhancement. “With children, that’s the purity of it. The child has the ability to … take the lead and work through to mastery.”

In fact, the crux of what makes play therapy so effective — and different from most other counseling methods — is that it is directed by the client, the Cochrans assert. Play therapists don’t suggest that clients play with a certain toy or work on a presenting problem. Instead, play therapists offer warmth, empathy and a gentle structure for clients to make their own meaning through the exploration and play they chose to engage in.

In play therapy, Jeff explains, the counselor sets up the process that leads to self-discovery on the part of the client. “You let the process teach them,” he says.

“It’s really the child that directs,” Nancy says. “They’ve got a unique voice in here [the play therapy room] which doesn’t always include words. When children are given the chance to go on a journey of self-discovery, they come in and they find a unique voice within that room. Once they find their individual voice, they become more accepting of self. Not only that, but they embrace self.”

Play therapy gives clients a safe space to explore what it feels like to be in control, she adds, with learning opportunities presenting themselves at every turn. As young clients try out the various toys in the playroom, they are learning what they do and don’t like, explains Nancy, an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling at the University of Tennessee. They can also push against preconceived ideas — whether of their own making or instilled in them by others — of what they are and aren’t good at.

In the process, Jeff adds, these clients are learning not only that they can play the xylophone, for example, but that they can take on a challenge and master it.

“They can try and fail and put themselves at risk in sessions [in ways] that they wouldn’t otherwise,” Nancy says. “The process and the therapist’s unconditional positive regard allow the child to make choices and be their own guide. They can be surprised by what is discovered.”

Giving clients control

One of the Cochrans’ graduate students worked with a child referred to play therapy because he was exhibiting obstinate behavior at preschool and not connecting with classmates. The 4-year-old had experienced abuse in his past, and his fear of taking risks discouraged him from trying new things or learning at school. Nancy says that the boy was nonverbal until the 10th session of play therapy.

In his first appointment, the boy was withdrawn and anxious, alternately slouching against the wall, crawling underneath a rug and hiding behind a shelf of toy bins for much of the session. Throughout the session, the Cochrans’ graduate counseling student offered gentle narration, such as “You’re not too sure about this” and “This is difficult for you.” She stayed with him, talking him through the process, which showed that she was committed to allowing him to choose how to proceed in his playtime, Nancy says.

Afterward, the graduate student confided to Nancy that she thought she had failed and had just made the young boy miserable. When they went back and watched video footage of the session together, however, Nancy pointed out something that the counseling student had missed. The boy had repeatedly tossed toys out from behind the shelf where he was hiding, but in the very last minute of the session, he found a pair of toy binoculars and had looked through them directly at the counseling student.

“It showed that he was curious, reaching out and was open to an eventual relationship,” Nancy says. “[I told the student], ‘Think of all the things he expressed and you helped him express. It was so beautiful that you stayed warmly right there with him.’”

Over the course of therapy, the young client opened up more and more. At the second and following sessions, he went behind the shelf and dumped toys out, both to explore and to see how the student counselor would react. He later gravitated to self-expressive work in a sand tray and used the counselor as an ally as he fought with a punching bag and engaged in imaginative role-play and rescue schemes. Eventually, the boy and the counselor played together, with the boy proudly setting up challenges and showing off his skills tossing balls into a toy bin.

The client was in foster care, and over the course of therapy, his play evolved from symbolic to direct expression as he drew pictures of what he wanted his family to look like, Nancy adds.

At one point early on in therapy, the counselor moved in to sit next to the client as he was working at the sand tray. He responded during the next session by putting objects in all the chairs to let her know that he wasn’t quite ready for that, Nancy recalls with a chuckle. “He was in control to let her in, little by little. But from the start, he wanted to know her and wanted her to know him. That connection was made from the very first session by giving him control of when and how — even though that first session wasn’t very playful.”

Watching video footage of the difference between when the client first came to play therapy and later sessions is remarkable, according to Nancy. “When you look across the sessions we did with him, his whole physical presence in the room changes, from looking downcast, to playing, laughing and making eye contact.”

In play therapy, clients learn to shed the defensive behaviors they have established to hide a vulnerable core, Nancy says. “They grow up — or down — to the age they’re supposed to be. You can have a child in play therapy who is 7 years going on 40, or 7 years going on 2. They develop the skills [in play therapy] to be a good, solid 7 years old,” she says. “They try on roles, explore what it feels like to be in control, integrate what is useful and let go of what they don’t need.”

Jeff acknowledges that play therapy’s power of self-discovery “sounds deceptively simple. … It’s hard to believe it can be so impactful.” However, through play, clients are able to examine themselves and push limits to discover patterns of repeated mistakes and blind spots.

For example, a play therapist might see young clients use a doll to act out, fluctuating between caring and nurturing behaviors and hurtful behaviors. Jeff says the counselor can narrate with empathy, accepting all play behaviors and attending to the child’s process as the child makes choices of how she or he wants to be in life.

“Being with a child while she tries on hurtful ways of being can be like allowing a child to have all chocolate for lunch to find out that it’s not actually good,” Jeff says. “They’re playing out what they’re thinking about: ‘How does it feel? What does it mean to me?’ They can fluctuate between what they’ve seen in their life versus what they want.”

Testing limits and making connections

Ray, an ACA fellow and a professor in the counseling program at the University of North Texas, is a registered play therapist and a certified supervisor in both child-centered play therapy and child-parent relationship therapy. She estimates that roughly 70 percent of a play therapist’s work is nonverbal and 30 percent is verbal. When play therapy practitioners do speak, it is typically to offer reflection and encouragement on the play they are observing or to offer guidance such as setting limits, she says.

“If [the child client] is depending on an adult to make decisions, I would respond, ‘In here, it’s up to you.’ If they’re asking, ‘How do I spell this?’ or ‘How do I draw this?’ the answer would be, ‘In here, you can draw or spell it any way you want to,’” Ray says.

When a young client becomes angry or tests limits, the counselor can recognize how the client is feeling and redirect the behavior. For example, when the child gets agitated, the play therapist can suggest that rather than drawing on the wall, they draw together on paper, rip the paper or punch a punching bag, Ray says.

“The child learns that every decision they make has consequences,” she says. “Acknowledge that they do have that feeling, and the feeling is OK. But never say, ‘You can’t.’ Say, ‘This [behavior] is not for doing.’”

This type of limit setting emphasizes that the child’s feelings are valid, Ray explains. It also sends the message that the child’s behavior — not the child himself or herself — is the problem and that there are always other ways of expressing strong feelings through an acceptable behavior. If a counselor presents the limit as “You can’t,” it implies that something about the child is not OK, Ray says. This type of response also might engage the child in a power struggle with the counselor by personalizing the expression of the feeling, she explains.

Children will naturally bump up against limits as a form of exploration, so play therapists will often see young clients who want to climb on things, break toys or exhibit other destructive behaviors, Jeff Cochran says. As with so many aspects of play therapy, the manner in which the counselor diffuses these urges can be an opportunity for self-discovery.

“We start with a simple opening message: ‘In this room, you can say anything you want and do almost anything you want, and if there’s something that’s not OK to do, I will tell you,’” Cochran says.

When the child does bump into a limit, the play therapist responds with empathy to the child’s experience in that moment and limits as little of the child’s behavior as possible — just enough to keep the child and therapist safe and the therapy room functional. “That in itself becomes therapeutic,” Cochran says. “They learn that there are ways to express themselves other than pushing boundaries. The therapist doesn’t have to make that happen; it’s a naturally occurring thing. They learn themselves who they are and what they want. Is what you are doing going to get you what you want?”

The growth and learning that begin in play therapy naturally carry over and are applied elsewhere in clients’ lives, Wroton says. In other words, the “work” of play therapy continues, even if the play therapist doesn’t observe a direct cause and effect in sessions, she says.

Wroton remembers one client, a 9-year-old boy, who had been adopted after going through the foster care system. Before being removed from his birth home, he had been exposed to graphic sexual content, anger, violence and alcohol abuse. In play therapy, he responded well and gravitated to making scenes in a sand tray.

Wroton told the boy, “I want to know what it’s like to be in your world.” Repeatedly, he would respond to this prompt by creating a scene that involved a king figure and several blue Smurfs. He would bury and uncover the Smurfs, and then rebury them. When he was finally finished making his scene, the Smurfs would always remain buried beneath the sand. They weren’t uncovered until it was time to clean up, Wroton says. The boy didn’t identify who or what these figures might represent, simply referring to them as “Smurfs,” she adds.

Then, one day, something changed for the client: He buried and reburied the Smurfs like usual, but he also buried the king and left him beneath the sand. Afterward, Wroton received a call from the client’s adoptive mother. Her son, who previously had never talked much about his past, was suddenly opening up and connecting more with her.

Wroton thinks the Smurfs and king figure in the boy’s sand tray scenes represented experiences and feelings that the young client had tucked away — including family members who were abusive yet for whom he also held some positive memories. Through the sand tray, he was processing these feelings and coming to terms with what the memories meant to him.

“Typically, a change in play means a change in processing,” Wroton says. “What motivated him that day, I’m not sure. For a month and a half, he had played out that scene over and over with the same characters. We might do the work here, but the application of it, and the completion of the work, is done [outside of session]. And that’s the end goal.”

What lies beneath

Ray thinks there is no better method than play therapy for reaching children who have behavioral or mental health challenges. “So many of our interventions are about telling, doing and suggesting. But in play therapy, we trust the client to know where they need to go,” says Ray, a past president of the Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling, a division of ACA. “It’s an intervention that trusts the child — they know where to go to solve their own problems and move toward self-enhancing solutions. If you offer a relationship that facilitates growth, the child is able to make the change through the developmentally appropriate language of play.”

“It’s something that is very, very different than most mental health interventions,” Ray continues. “It’s not acting upon the child; it’s acting with the child.”

The self-directive aspect of play therapy reached one of Ray’s clients in ways that other more direct methods might have failed to do. The 8-year-old girl was referred to Ray by her school because of aggressive behavior, which included being suspended after trying to hit her teacher. However, in play therapy, the girl never mentioned any anger regarding school, her teacher or her classmates. Instead, she played out scenes from her family and home life, where, it turns out, she was being abused.

In play therapy sessions with Ray, the client gravitated toward drawing her family and setting up scenes with figures in a dollhouse. As the characters in the dollhouse would interact, the girl would exhibit what Ray calls a “play disruption.” In the middle of a dollhouse scene, the girl would become more active and move through the room, often throwing or trying to break things. After directing her energy and aggression in this way, she was able to finish her scene in the dollhouse.

The girl wasn’t willing to talk with anyone about her family issues at school. The style of her play in play therapy, however, was an outlet for her to communicate and process what was happening. The young client talked about specific abuses that were happening at home during the family scenes she played out in therapy, Ray says.

Once the root of the child’s struggles became clear, Ray took the necessary steps to report the suspected abuse, documenting what the client had verbalized in session. Through play, the client formed a therapeutic bond with Ray and was able to work through what was troubling her. As a result, the child’s aggressive behavior at school dissipated.

“If I had brought the child in and said, ‘Let’s talk about how you’re aggressive at school,’ she would have shut down and not talked,” Ray says. “Having a counselor who trusts a child is so different than what many children experience [from adults]. That message of, ‘I’m going to accept you no matter what and trust that you know where you need to go,’ that, to me, is the healing factor of play therapy. It’s predicated on this amazing factor that if you put a child in an environment where they have control, they will move toward change.”

Not just for kids

Missy Galica, an ACA member and LPC intern in Lubbock, Texas, uses sand tray therapy in her work with adult clients, including college students from Texas Tech University. The medium can be particularly helpful for clients of any age who are struggling to find the words to articulate how they are feeling, she says.

What brings many of Galica’s college-age clients to counseling are academic struggles. By creating scenes in a sand tray, the students are often able to work through nonacademic issues that are troubling them and spilling over into their behavior and schoolwork.

Sand tray work “is good for those who just aren’t good at [verbal] communication or for those whose brains work faster than their mouths,” Galica says. “The sand tray makes them slow down. You really have to think about what you’re doing. You have to think about the representation and object placement. It’s also good for those who get nervous or people who just don’t like getting grilled with questions [from a counselor.] It gives them time to explore what they want to say, and they don’t have to have answers right away.”

As is the case with child-centered play therapy, sand tray work is nondirective. The client chooses what gets made in the sand tray and the meaning attached to it. Counselors should be careful to prompt clients to describe and talk about the scenes they have made in the sand tray without interjecting their own observations, Galica emphasizes.

“If you don’t ‘get it’ at first, if you don’t see a meaning, it’s OK. It’s the client’s space to do what they need to do,” she says. “Anything you can think of that happens in life can be represented in a sand tray, [but] don’t make any assumptions. Ask the client what things represent. You may see something and assume, ‘Oh, this is XYZ,’ but it may be the opposite.”

As part of the meaning-making process, Galica takes photos of each scene after clients finish their sand trays. Later, they look at the photos together, talk about the progress the client has made and discuss how the person’s sand tray scenes have evolved. This is also a good way to track and prompt discussions of representations that come up repeatedly with clients, Galica says.

Clients often have to take some time to think it through before they can explain the scenes they have created in their sand trays. Many times, Galica says, issues and challenges that have been troubling clients don’t become clear to them until they see the issues played out in a sand tray. For example, a client who is feeling overwhelmed with school or home life might put figures all in a jumble on top of one another. Or a client may use one object to represent themselves and place another object or objects at a distance or facing away from them. In this case, the client may be struggling with loss, attachment issues or fear of letting loved ones down. Ultimately, however, it is up to the client — not the counselor — to discover and talk through the issue that has taken shape in the sand tray. At the same time, the counselor provides the prompting and support to help and encourage the client, Galica says.

“It can be tempting to ask, ‘What are you doing?’ or ‘What does that mean?’ But don’t stop them. Let it play out. Wait to the end and then say, ‘Talk to me about this. Describe it for me,’” Galica suggests. “Often, it will be something you [the counselor] never would have thought of. I learn something new every day.”

Galica recalls a particular client whose parents wanted him to become an engineer and were paying his way through college. He hated his engineering courses, however, and harbored a desire to become a jazz musician. This had manifested into academic and other struggles while he was away from home. When the client made sand tray scenes, he often placed a female figure at a distance from the figure he used to represent himself. After multiple sand trays and discussions, it became clear that the client was terrified to tell his mother he didn’t want to be an engineer.

Galica began to focus on that fear with the client, asking him to express his feelings in a draft letter to his parents. She also had him speak to an empty chair as if his mother were there, which is a technique often used in Gestalt therapy. It took the student the entire semester before he felt prepared to tell his parents about his own dreams for his future.

As clients play out situations in sand trays, Galica asks them to show her what they would want life to look like if they had a magic wand to fix everything they were struggling with. What would a resolution look like? What would it look like in five, 10 or 20 years? From there, Galica and her clients talk through the issues and consider options for arriving at realistic resolutions.

Galica says sand trays can easily be used in conjunction with any modality to which a counselor is loyal. She regularly uses them along with cognitive behavior therapy for her college-age clients. Another benefit, she notes, is that the materials are readily available and easily transportable. Practitioners can pick up a plastic tray, sand and small figurines at any big box or craft supply store.

Sand tray work is a method that many counselors might not consider for adult clients “because we’re culturally conditioned [to think] that we don’t play after a certain age,” Galica says. However, sand tray work is very accessible (for both counselor and client), creative and versatile, she asserts.

“Broadly, it’s a way for clients to communicate without having to use words, because they may not have the words,” Galica says. For the client, it means, “I don’t have to stare you in the eyes and tell you all my secrets; the sand tray will tell you. … The beautiful thing about this is that as a counselor, there is no [need to assign] meaning. The only meaning comes from the client.”

 

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To contact the counselors interviewed for this article, email:

 

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Additional resources

Books published by ACA (Available at counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

From Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

ACA divisions

  • The Association for Child and Adolescent Counseling: acachild.org

Search for podcasts, online courses and other ACA resources at aca.digitellinc.com/aca/

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her
at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Spinoza was right: Four steps to recovery from addiction

By James Rose August 21, 2018

The 17th-century Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza wrote that “when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune.” He named this condition “human bondage.”

In my view, there is no greater form of human bondage among us now than drug addiction. Addiction is a form of self-imposed bondage that binds people as firmly as if they were held in chains. People who are addicted are being held in a form of bondage that is rooted in their own emotions.

In my three years of working with people in recovery from addiction, I have seen a clear pattern emerge. Individuals who begin recovery by detoxifying from their drug of choice soon feel a rush of hard emotions. These hard emotions are the ones they have been suppressing with their drug use.

From there, successful recovery follows a few distinct steps:

1) Patients name the emotions they are feeling.

2) They identify the story they have been telling themselves about the people, events or circumstances that are at the root of those hard emotions.

3) They examine the meaning of the story they have been telling themselves and consciously challenge that meaning.

4) They find a way to change the meaning of their story.

Because emotions flow from the stories we tell ourselves, patients in addiction recovery can then begin to change the emotions they feel, including the hard emotions that led to their drug use.

Let’s examine these four steps to recovery in detail.

1) Identify the hard emotions that arise. People vary significantly in their ability to discuss emotions. In general, women tend to be better at expressing their emotions than are men. Among people who abuse substances, both men and women typically struggle with expressing emotions. Not knowing how to handle strong emotions, and needing to numb them out, is often at the root of their use.

I often begin group counseling sessions by asking patients to name various emotions. It is a warm-up exercise to get them thinking about the range of emotions that exist and whether they are feeling them at that moment. Among the emotions frequently listed are loneliness, sadness, abandonment, depression, anger and hurt. Often, I will fill a chalkboard with their emotion words and then ask the participants to pick out a few words that apply to them. By giving patients a broad panoply of emotion words to choose from, they often find it easier to name their own emotions.

2) Identify the people, events or circumstances from which those hard feelings arose. For one young man, it was seeing his father, whom he considered his “rock,” suffer from diabetes and have his foot and part of his leg amputated. This was followed two years later by his father’s death. For a young woman, it was the death of her mother and the simultaneous abandonment by her boyfriend. For another young man, it was the emotional coldness of his father, which compelled him to threaten to commit suicide to get his father’s attention.

A sense of abandonment — and, in particular, abandonment in one form or another by a parent — plays a large part in many people’s addictions. A parent might be physically absent, either through death or divorce, or a parent might be physically present but emotionally absent. This can be the result of a parent who is simply emotionally distant by nature or a parent who is emotionally absent because they are involved in some form of addiction to drugs, alcohol, work, sex, gambling, pornography or other things.

Children by nature model themselves after their parents. Sometimes children are unaware of this modeling behavior. One client hated that his father struggled with alcoholism. So much so that this client had promised himself he would never drink alcohol, and he kept his promise. Instead, he used heroin. He had simply replaced one addiction with another, becoming as emotionally unavailable to others as his father had been to him. One common element among all addictions is that they make a person emotionally unavailable to others around them.

Sometimes I use the analogy of fun-house mirrors — those mirrors they sometimes have at carnivals that distort people’s images. As children, we try to get a clear picture of who we are by the image we see reflected in the eyes of our parents. If a child is fortunate enough to have mature, healthy parents, that child is more likely to gain a reasonably accurate self-image from their parents and have a secure emotional foundation from which to face life.

But if a child’s parents are unhealthy or immature, then the self-image the child receives from those parents is more likely to be distorted or flawed. These children may go through life with the unsettled sense that there is something wrong with them. The grown child then lacks a basis for determining what his or her self-image should be.

That sense of not being able to see oneself clearly can create a lasting pain in a child’s heart, and addictive behaviors are more likely to develop in an effort to numb out that pain. As counselors, our work can involve “reparenting” our clients by providing a clear self-reflection of who they truly are — an image these clients might never have received from their actual parents.

There is also a hidden stigma involved in situations in which children have the opportunity to become better than their parents. Sometimes this stigma is called invisible loyalty. For example, if a child comes from a family where drinking is normal behavior, the child risks breaking a family norm — and thus becoming “better” than his or her parents — by not drinking. That is a step toward independence that not everyone is willing to take.

3) Challenge the story you are telling yourself. Often, the event or circumstance involved in the triggering event creates a terrible blow to the person’s self-esteem. For example, the client whose father walked out on the family when the client was 5 was taught in the most unmistakable terms that he was worthless. The woman whose mother died and whose boyfriend left her shortly thereafter simultaneously suffered both grief and abandonment — abandonment at a moment in her life when she most needed someone she could turn to and trust to help her deal with her grief. The young man who lost his father to diabetes felt cast adrift without the man who had represented stability in his life.

Our emotions follow our narrative. If the stories we tell ourselves are ones of loss, abandonment and aimlessness, our feelings will be ones of worthlessness. It is that feeling of worthlessness at the core of our being that is often at the root of addiction. Addiction is a way of trying to numb out those unbearable feelings. If our narrative tells us that all is lost, then there is nothing much to do but to numb out our pain and drag ourselves through life as best we can.

Our feelings are predictions of what to expect, based on our past experience. If our past experience has been full of sorrow and loss, we will come to expect more sorrow and loss in our lives. We will approach the potential of something joyful happening in our lives with dread, lacing it with the expectation that, sooner or later, things will turn out badly. If close relationships turn into abandonment and loss, we might create self-fulfilling expectations by not entering into new relationships with openness.

And yet, it is human nature to want to have close relationships. One young man with whom I worked desperately wanted to feel some sort of emotional connection with his father. To all appearances, his father was a good man and a good father, but he was incapable of showing warmth and caring to his son on an emotional level. The son’s drug use was an attempt to self-medicate the pain he felt at the lack of that important connection in his life.

It reached a point where the son called his father and said he had a knife in his hands and was ready to slit his wrists because he was so desperate for his father to show some level of care and concern for him. The father responded; the son did not commit suicide. He told his father of his drug use, and the son agreed to go into recovery. The son had received a message of worthlessness from his father, and he found that message too painful to live with. He forced his father’s hand to show caring.

In recovery, the young man gained an understanding of how deeply he felt the sense of emotional abandonment by his father. Once he gained an understanding of that emotion, he was ready to pursue the fourth step.

4) Change the way you tell your story. For that young man, recovery meant telling his story differently. Instead of telling himself that his father’s coldness meant he was worthless, he came to understand that his father’s coldness was his father’s nature — the product of his father’s own difficult upbringing. The son learned that he was capable of finding the sort of emotional connection he craved with his mother, his siblings, his friends and his new companions in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

He came to accept that he would never change his father, but he learned that he could change himself so that he could find the emotional gratification he longed for from others. He had previously believed that he needed to be like his father — cold and emotionless. Once he changed his story and gave himself permission to truly feel the emotions he was experiencing, he could share those feelings with others and find the sort of emotional connections that he craved. Once those emotional longings were satisfied, his need to numb out his more painful emotions evaporated.

Changing one’s story is fundamentally an act of building self-esteem. Self-esteem is built in a number of ways. It comes from allowing oneself to feel one’s emotions, from avoiding all-or-nothing thinking and from recognizing that life events most often consist of shades of gray. Finding the strength to express one’s true self among others, and to experience that self as different from other people and to develop enough detachment to become comfortable with those differences, is also essential.

For some people, and particularly those who had difficulty with their parents while growing up, spirituality may provide the context for seeing themselves differently. This is the concept behind the step in AA to surrender to a higher power, however that higher power may be understood. Seeing oneself as a child of God may provide a corrective lens for those who grew up with the fun-house mirrors and were never able to gain a true picture of themselves through the eyes of their parents.

I once spoke at a Christian-based recovery center where I offered that sort of corrective vision to the patients by slightly changing the word order of a familiar Scripture reading. I told the audience, “If you want to know who you are, consider these words from the Gospel of Matthew. ‘You are blessed, you who are poor in spirit, because yours is the kingdom of heaven. You are blessed who mourn, for you shall be comforted. You are blessed who are meek, for you shall inherit the earth,’” and so on through the remaining Beatitudes. And then I said, “You are a child of God, because why else would Jesus have taught us to pray to God as ‘Our Father?’”

Learning to see oneself differently, and changing one’s story in a way that builds self-esteem, is the fundamental act of recovery. Guiding patients through the growth of creating a healthy sense of self-esteem is at the core of my work as a counselor. People are not only recovering from the habit of substance abuse. They are recovering their lost selves.

Spinoza wrote, “The more clearly you understand yourself and your emotions, the more you become a lover of what is.” Examining emotions with patients and helping them to see themselves as they truly are is the royal road to helping those in recovery. It is the path that leads them to self-knowledge and self-esteem. Ultimately, it is the path out of the trap of human bondage.

 

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James Rose, a national certified counselor and graduate professional counselor, is a recent graduate of Loyola University Maryland and works in addictions treatment at Ashley Addiction Services. Contact him at jrrose@loyola.edu.

 

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Read more by James Rose, from the Counseling Today archives: “Stepping into recovery

 

Related reading, also from Counseling Today: “Grief, loss and substance abuse

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

Conquering the fear of flying

By Bethany Bray August 15, 2018

National Football League (NFL) commentator John Madden famously crisscrossed the United States for years in a custom coach bus so that he could make it to games and other commitments without having to board a plane. The former head coach of the Oakland Raiders and Pro Football Hall of Famer’s aversion to flying also led him to decline the opportunity to call the NFL’s annual Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

Madden is hardly alone in his avoidance of air travel. Research indicates that up to 40 percent of the general population experiences flight-related anxiety.

One of the things that makes aviophobia, or fear of flying, so common is that the average person just doesn’t do it that often, says Stephnie Thomas, an American Counseling Association member and licensed clinical professional counselor at the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland.

Assuring clients that a fear of flying is relatively common can lessen the sense of shame or embarrassment that they might feel about it, Thomas says. This plays an important first step in addressing the issue with a counselor.

“Sometimes the counselor may be the first person the client has ever revealed this ‘big secret’ to,” she says. That is especially true with male clients, she adds. “For some [clients], it’s been so long since they have flown that the plane has grown into a monster in their mind — more enclosed, larger and scarier than it actually is.”

For most people, Thomas says, the fear of flying is rooted in loss of control — of their surroundings, of navigation, of travel schedules and of their own bodies (some people experience panic-related symptoms such as heavy breathing, sweating or vomiting).

Thomas works with clients to find ways to tolerate the distress and anxiety they feel regarding air travel rather than trying to avoid or make those feelings disappear altogether. She explains that if they work through their anxiety, it will lessen naturally over time.

“The goal is not a reduction of their anxiety. The goal is to learn tolerance, which is really hard. I always tell clients that I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” says Thomas, who has a private counseling practice in Westminster, Maryland.

In Thomas’ experience, fear of flying is rarely a stand-alone issue. Careful assessment is essential with these clients, she stresses, because their phobia can be tied to other issues that need therapeutic attention, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks or posttraumatic stress disorder. It can also dovetail with other anxieties, such as a fear of enclosed spaces or germs — for example, obsessing over disinfecting their armrests and tray tables on the airplane.

“The clients who only have a fear of dying in a plane crash are few and far between, even though this is a common reason many give for avoiding flying,” Thomas says.

In her work at the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, Thomas flies with aviophobia clients as part of their therapy program. Boarding a plane, however, is a final step in a thorough process that begins with traditional talk therapy. She uses cognitive behavior therapy from an acceptance and commitment therapy perspective, in addition to exposure therapy and other techniques.

Lessening the anxiety symptoms that clients experience when flying is a byproduct of therapy, not a goal, Thomas emphasizes. She works with clients to accept the feelings that come with flying and to deflect catastrophic thoughts. It can also be helpful for clients to focus on their reasons for boarding an airplane.

“I ask, ‘Why is it important for you to do this? Let’s hold on to that value,’” says Thomas, a fellow of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “In order to get through to that outcome, we’ve got to go through this swamp of anxiety. We’re going toward that anxiety rather than running away from it.”

Some of Thomas’ clients want to overcome their aviophobia because they are required to fly for work and their career depends on it. For others, an airplane flight stands between them and a vacation that they’ve wanted to take for a long time, a family visit, a wedding or another important event. Thomas had one client whose dream was to go to Europe to visit the country of his ancestry. Eventually, he was able to make that flight and sent Thomas a postcard to commemorate the achievement.

A key aspect of overcoming aviophobia is breaking things into small pieces — both with the therapeutic preparation and with the coping mechanisms on the day of the flight, Thomas says. For instance, when clients are ready to fly, it can be helpful for them to focus only on the next bite-sized task: checking in, getting through security, finding their gate, etc. They aren’t allowed to worry about what happens in steps three or four while they’re still on step two, Thomas emphasizes.

To help her clients prepare, Thomas works with them to imagine, visualize and become accustomed to what getting on a plane involves. Videos on YouTube are one helpful tool. Thomas often watches footage taken midflight with clients so they can get used to the sights and sounds of an airplane. There is even a six-hour video on YouTube of an entire flight from the East Coast to the West Coast of the United States, Thomas says. One of her clients would put the video on his television at home, playing it in the background to expose himself to the idea of flying.

Thomas also assigns homework that will expose her aviophobia clients to some of the uncomfortable sensations they might experience on a flight. For example, individuals who don’t like feeling the G-force of takeoff could be tasked with going to a local amusement park to get more accustomed to the sensation. She would have them start with a smaller, more tame ride and work up to the bigger roller coasters, Thomas says.

For those who are afraid of being away from home, she might suggest that they ride the subway system around Washington, D.C., or take a small day trip, such as a bus trip to New York City. Similarly, those who are afraid of heights or small spaces can expose themselves, little by little, to diffuse the fear while they are close to home, such as going to the top of a tall building or riding an elevator.

When client anxiety spikes in therapy sessions, the first instinct of many well-meaning counselors may be to try to help clients calm down or make their symptoms go away. “Unfortunately, this sends a message that anxiety is a bad thing to be avoided instead of a normal physiological reaction to perceived danger,” Thomas says. “Instead, I encourage counselors to welcome anxiety in the office and encourage the client to be willing to sit with it and make room for the anxiety. I tell clients that without moderate anxiety, we would be an extinct species, because it has been advantageous for the humans to be anxious and avoid saber-toothed tigers, bears, lions, etc. The problem is not that we have anxiety. The problem is that in this modern world, there is rarely an opportunity to be faced with real dangers, so for those of us who are blessed with a strong alert system, the system gives us a lot of false alarms.”

Thomas also works with clients to internalize the concept that although flying is a risk, it is an acceptable risk. Her clients often create notecards reminding them of this and bring the cards with them when they fly.

“Being anxious [on a flight] only means that your body is paying attention. Is this discomfort, or are you actually in danger?” Thomas asks. “I tell them, ‘When the wings fall off the plane, only then are you allowed to panic.’”

She often repeats a saying from psychologist David Carbonell, author of the Fear of Flying Workbook: Overcome Your Anticipatory Anxiety and Develop Skills for Flying With Confidence: “As an airline passenger, your only job is to be breathing baggage.” You simply have to stay in one place and be transported from point A to point B, she says.

“Since loss of control is the underlying fear for most clients, this is a tough idea,” Thomas adds.

After years of specializing in this area, Thomas has developed a relationship with representatives of Southwest Airlines at the nearby Baltimore/Washington International Airport. Occasionally, she coordinates with the airline to bring groups of clients to the airport to sit in an unused airplane, talk with airline employees and try out a mock boarding process. She has also organized events at her office at which Southwest pilots or employees come to speak and answer questions.

Thomas doesn’t require her aviophobia clients to take a flight with her. But many find it helpful to have her accompany them as they take a first “practice” flight after seeking therapy.

Once a client is ready, they schedule a flight together that leaves and returns to the Baltimore airport in the same day. They choose destinations roughly a one-hour flight away that feature something fun and relaxing to do, such as the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

After completing that first flight with Thomas, she advises them to book or start planning their next flight right away — this time on their own or with loved ones. The desired treatment outcome, she says, is for clients to be able to fly regularly and to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings that may come with that experience.

 

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Stephnie Thomas’ reminders for fearful flyers

1) Flying is an acceptable risk. Remember that the statistics are in your favor.

2) Move with the turbulence. Rate it on a 1-10 scale.

3) Notice when you’re anticipating the worst-case scenario.

4) Mindfully accept your initial anxious thoughts as just “white noise.”

5) Notice when you add a second fear.

6) Be willing to accept panic when it happens.

7) Practice allowing your physiological symptoms to get stronger.

8) Mindfully let yourself be in the plane (or wherever you are physically located).

9) Practice relaxation and mindfulness coping skills before you fly.

10) Remind yourself: “It took time to get this way; it will take time to recover.”

11) Tell yourself: “Each time I take a practice flight, I can learn that I can see it through by accepting the anxiety.”

12) Book your next flight before the practice flight is completed.

Source: stephthomas.com/fear%20of%20flying%20info.htm

 

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Contact Stephnie Thomas at stephniet@gmail.com or through her website, stephthomas.com.

 

Find out more

Stephnie Thomas suggests the following resources for practitioners looking to help clients with aviophobia:

 

Related reading from Counseling Today:

When panic attacks

Living with anxiety

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

 

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The hurting counselor

By Gregory K. Moffatt August 13, 2018

It was like someone was sitting on my chest. From the moment I awoke each day, I could barely breathe, and throughout the day, I teetered on the verge of tears. My wife and I had separated, and I thought my 20-year marriage was about to end. My heart was in shreds and, especially because I am a counselor, I was humiliated that I was failing in my marriage. I felt like a fraud in front of my students, and as I struggled through lectures, the words and ideas that left my lips — the ones that normally were energizing to me — now seemed hollow and pointless.

I also struggled to get through my clinical appointments. As one married couple talked about their own pains, resentments and disappointments, I felt so incompetent that it was all I could do not to send them out the door. My worldview — everything I thought I believed in — had been shattered.

And, of course, I also had to face my children, explain things to my extended family and tell my close friends about my troubles. One of the most painful things ever said to me was delivered by one of those people at the time, like a spear thrust into my chest: “You might be a good counselor, but you sure don’t know how to practice it at home.”

It was an impulsive statement not intended to wound me, but those words sealed my burgeoning perception that not only had my marriage failed, but the successful person I thought I had become was merely an illusion. Many times I had talked to others about how failing didn’t make them a failure, but I couldn’t apply those words to myself. I believed I was indeed a failure. Nothing had prepared me for the crippling effects of such a personal crisis on my professional sense of competence, my worldview and my sense of self.

Those days are long behind me now, but the devastating feeling of that painful period was brought back to me recently as I worked with a colleague in the midst of a similar experience. Even now, after many years of healing, that wound is still tender in my heart, and as my colleague talked to me, tears pooling in his eyes, I knew there was little I could say to ease his pain. I recognized that fractured sense of competence in his face. It was the same one that looked back at me from the mirror all those years ago.

Children or no children, short marriage or long, amicable divorce or contentious, splitting up is always painful. I loved my family, and I was willing to do anything to salvage my marriage. In retrospect, that difficult time was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It helped me become a better person, and it helped my wife and me to heal some very deep hurts and disappointments and to begin nurturing a much healthier and happier relationship — one that thrives like wildflowers today. But that experience also taught me that the pain of personal crisis, whatever the cause, can be debilitating to a counselor.

A hard fall

As a professor, writer and clinician, I had always prided myself on practicing the things I taught. Looking back on those years, maybe I succeeded much of the time, but I failed more than I realized. I suppose counselors require a sense of competence, maybe even bordering on arrogance, to take the risks we take each day. After all, we are diagnosing and treating based on a professional judgment call, and if we didn’t have confidence in our abilities, we probably wouldn’t be very good at what we do. We might otherwise stand on the riverbank, foundering in indecision, never daring to venture across.

But that confidence and self-assurance may also blind us and make our fall much harder. As is also true for politicians and religious leaders, people expect more of counselors than perhaps they should. We are, after all, human. But a personal crisis, regardless of whether it is one of our own making, is not just our own. Our pain, embarrassment and shame are inevitably known to many and reflect, however unfairly, on our professionalism. That adds to the weight of our sorrows.

The self-care paradox

There is no shortage of books and articles on self-care for therapists. A quick search in an academic database yielded almost 1,000 articles on the topic. We talk a lot about self-care in our field, but I know that I didn’t practice it well. I suspect I am not alone — and this isn’t a new problem.

My professors and internship supervisors talked about the importance of self-care when I was a graduate student in the 1980s. In 2000, Theresa O’Halloran and Jeremy Linton noted that “wellness is a concept that we as counselors often focus on more readily for our clients than ourselves.” Then, almost 20 years after that, Denis’ A. Thomas and Melanie H. Morris (2017) wrote, “Although most counselors have knowledge about self-care and convey the importance to others, the same knowledge may not translate into self-care action — often when it is needed most.” Apparently, as a group, we practitioners haven’t learned much about the application of self-care in our own lives over the past few decades.

This is such a bizarre paradox. Counselors, of all people, should know better. We are trained to take care of ourselves, and we emphasize the importance of self-care to our clients. Yet my self-confidence in those days caused me to naively believe that crisis wouldn’t knock on my door. I think in some ways, when counselors talk about self-care, it is more of an academic conversation than a real one. It may be something like the fact that we all know we are going to die someday, but it isn’t real to us until we stare it square in the face.

Divorce, death of a loved one, loss of a job and chronic mental health issues strike counselors’ homes and lives just as they do the rest of the population, and these issues are potentially just as damaging to us as they are to those who are not in the field of mental health.

I couldn’t have prevented the pain of my own crisis, but there are many things I could have done differently to prepare myself for it. My self-care habits back then were weak at best. I’d like to offer some suggestions that can help counselors navigate the sweeping effects of personal tragedy.

Find a counselor before you need one

Unfortunately for me, when the reality of my fractured marriage came calling, I didn’t already have a personal therapist. I had seen one in the past, but I hadn’t had an appointment with him in years, so long that I couldn’t even remember his name.

I should have known better. All of us learn in graduate school that we need to manage our own issues if we want to be effective therapists, and I had been through both individual and group counseling as a part of my graduate work. I thought I had done enough. I reasoned that I had worked through past issues and found a place for my own life’s traumas. Maybe I thought I had “arrived,” but I was kidding myself. Managing the past helped to some degree but not with maintaining my ongoing mental health. Consequently, I wasn’t growing either.

It is easy to rationalize that the cost of regular therapy — both in time and money — doesn’t make sense. We work hard as counselors, and for every hour we spend in our own therapy, we are also losing money because we aren’t seeing clients. But that is false economy. Even if we are managing life fairly well, it still helps to get a checkup. I get a physical every year even though I’m fine; I go to the dentist twice a year even though I don’t have cavities; and I go to the eye doctor each year even though my eyesight is OK. I should have applied the same philosophy to my mental health, getting a mental health checkup every few months at minimum.

So, there I was, in crisis and in need of a therapist, and I had absolutely no idea who to turn to. Plus, I had another serious dilemma that is common among counselors. Almost everyone I knew and trusted in the field couldn’t ethically see me as a client. They were friends, colleagues, former students or former supervisees. I’d consulted with them, taught them or socialized with them. Now I had to find a therapist in the midst of my crisis, and I was left with the phone book — something I always tell people to avoid.

If I had been maintaining an ongoing relationship with a therapist already, this part of my crisis management would have been simple. For that matter, it’s very likely that at least some of the crisis itself might have been avoided. I’ll never find myself in that place again.

Exercise, eat right and rest

Good mental health requires us to eat right, sleep right and get reasonable exercise. I call it “Moffatt’s Mantra,” something my students, interns, supervisees and clients undoubtedly get tired of hearing.

Even before my crisis, I slept poorly, sometimes getting only an hour or two of sleep a night. This went on for years, and just as I apparently had been doing with my personal life issues, I chose to ignore my sleep issues. Oddly, my sleep problems allowed me to be exceptionally productive. Getting to my office sometimes at 1:30 or 2 a.m., I wrote prolifically, publishing many books and articles as a result. But then, in the midst of crisis when I desperately needed rest, even the little sleep I ordinarily might have gotten evaporated. I was preoccupied with shame, regrets and hopes, and sleep was nearly impossible. I made an appointment with my prescriber and began taking regular sleep aids, which was critical to my healing. Almost immediately, a reasonable night’s rest helped my mood improve.

Likewise, in those days, I rarely ate breakfast and often skipped lunch, only to overeat at the meals I did have. Fortunately, I have never been one to eat junk food, but my Southern diet was full of fried foods, fats and carbs. When crisis hit, I couldn’t eat at all. My stomach was upset, and I had a hard time downing even a few bites. Over just a few weeks, I lost more than 20 pounds. Just as was true with my sleep patterns, crisis magnified my poor eating habits. A good friend forced me to eat, often sitting with me during meals — including some that he made himself — to ensure I was getting at least some nutrition.

Of the three areas that constitute Moffatt’s Mantra, exercise was the only one that came easy to me. I have always been good about getting some type of daily exercise — running, biking, swimming or even all three in one day. This is the only thing that helped me offset the fatty, fried-food diet that was my routine and prevented me from gaining unhealthy weight.

Exercise has myriad benefits. Aside from building endurance, muscle tone and a stronger heart, it also improves quality of sleep and mood in general. Research has demonstrated that attention to healthy, reasonable exercise can either lessen the demand for medication or remove its necessity altogether, even with serious issues such as chronic depression. Exercise produces morphine-like endorphins that help to balance our moods. Even moderate exercise just two or three days a week can help manage weight and increase metabolism. Seeing a thinner self in the mirror can also improve mood.

“I’m too busy to exercise” is a very weak excuse. I was very glad that I didn’t have to add exercise to my life during the crisis because I doubt I would have possessed the motivation to work out and try to get in shape.

Supervision

Most counselors engage in supervision until a license or related credential is achieved, but after that, they rarely pursue any form of formal supervision. I think that is a mistake. As a supervisor myself, I have to recognize when a supervisee’s personal life issues, whatever they may be, are interfering with clinical practice without crossing the line and functioning as my supervisee’s therapist.

It would have been wise to have a second set of eyes during my crisis to evaluate my competence and ability to work with the clients I continued to see. An ongoing relationship with a trusted mentor or supervisor not only helps make us better counselors, but our supervisors may also be able to recognize when we are off our game. We lack objectivity when it comes to our own lives — both professional and personal.

That well-known line, “Physician, heal thyself,” sounds good, but it is an unattainable goal. Looking back at my own history, I was totally blinded by limitations of maturity and knowledge as well as by my good intentions. It is only through the lens of time that I am able to see that now. There is no way I could have been fully aware back then. Retaining a mentor who could have helped identify when it was time for me to take a step back would have been advisable.

Don’t forget to play

Building a private practice takes time, and many counselors burn the candle at both ends, working late hours and weekends, and seeing 35 to 40 clients per week. Such a schedule is unsustainable without life balance.

There is a huge body of research cataloging the benefits of play. It used to be thought that play was a kid thing. That is absolutely false. Human beings — in fact, most mammals — are prewired to play. The need to play doesn’t end at some arbitrary age that we call adulthood.

In general, research demonstrates the health benefits of play when it offers enjoyment and when the participant suspends time and place in exchange for focusing on an entertaining goal, such as winning a board game, playing tag or shooting basketball. Adults who play are happier and manage stress better. Play boosts morale, improves our “marketability” with the opposite sex and reduces heart rate. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Play even demonstrated the need for play among astronauts and proposed that NASA formally develop a “playscape” for those in microgravity.

Golfing, biking, hiking, playing games with your children or putting together a jigsaw puzzle are only some of the varied activities that constitute play. My favorite play activity these days is camping, and I am in the woods at least one or two days a month throughout the year — rain or shine, hot or cold. The isolation and recreation of the mountains energizes me and recharges my batteries.

Know your limits

One of my strengths in life is that I have never once done anything simply for money. Money doesn’t own me, so nobody else does either. But it is an easy mistake to make, especially as an American, to keep striving for more — a bigger house, a larger counseling practice, more staff, one more speaking engagement, more clients and so on.

Even when your practice energizes you, there has to be something more in life than appointments. It seems so logical, however, to keep taking on new obligations, mistakenly believing that you are “building a practice” when, in fact, you are burning the bridge from both banks. Long-term goals require some sacrifice, of course, but the decision of what to do and what to cut should be based on something other than the bottom line of your bank account or an arbitrary conceptualization of success.

Another reality is that in the midst of crisis, you can’t expect yourself to perform at the same level you would when your life is more normal. When I plunged into crisis, I cut back on as much as I could. I still had to teach my classes, and I continued to see the clients on my caseload I felt I could ethically handle. But I took no new clients, accepted no new speaking engagements, put all of my writing projects on hold and cleared my calendar, canceling a number of events I just didn’t feel strong enough to manage.

You will assume that this article doesn’t apply to you

There are varied perspectives on self-care, but I particularly like O’Halloran and Linton (2000), who propose focusing on wellness in six domains: social, emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual and professional. Prior to my crisis, I had focused only on one or two of these, even though self-care is mandated by the ACA Code of Ethics. The suggestions I have offered about self-care are a start, but if history has taught me anything, I predict that most readers will say to themselves, “That was an important article. Glad it doesn’t apply to me.” And then 10 or 20 years from now, somebody else will be writing an article for counselors addressing the need for self-care. I would love to be proved wrong.

Just because we are counselors doesn’t make us immune to the ills of life any more than an oncologist is immune to the risks of cancer. In the 1990s, when Elisabeth Kübler-Ross experienced a series of serious health issues, she recanted her “stage theory” completely. A full-page article in my local paper described her health woes and her disparaging comments regarding her theory. I thought at the time her recanting of the theory was, ironically, demonstrative of the anger stage of that very theory. Before her death some years later, she said as much and reaffirmed her personal belief in her theory and life’s work. Despite our knowledge and experience, a crisis blinds us. Affect always trumps logic.

Taking good care of yourself is not only healthy for you, it will help you better serve your clients. Even chronic mental health issues such as depression do not preclude our competence. One of the most influential people in my professional life endured a lifelong battle with depression. I had known her a very long time before she confided that information to me. But she was an amazing mentor whose words and example influence me to this day. Likewise, one of the most naturally gifted interns I have ever had was a woman who suffered major depressive disorder, marriage issues and significant self-esteem issues throughout most of her life. But when she closed her door to begin therapy with her clients, she was amazing.

Both of these women were surprisingly strong, despite their personal life frailties. I am confident that they had learned to manage their challenges — not avoid them — and had developed self-care processes that allowed them to flourish in the counseling room.

It is with some embarrassment that I share my personal failures with you, but as always, this isn’t about me. Instead, I am hopeful that sharing my struggles can help you to avoid the mistakes I made. Pain will eventually find us all. I hope that, with better preparations than I made for myself, you can be prepared to weather the inevitable storms on your own horizons.

My friend has a very long road ahead of him. Recovering when your world lies in tatters around your feet is overwhelming. But he has me — a friend and a confidant. He has his therapist. And he has the physical and spiritual health to face this daily challenge. That is a great start.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a professor of counseling and human services at Point University in Georgia. He is a licensed professional counselor and a certified professional counselor supervisor. Contact him at greg.moffatt@point.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives:

The battle against burnout

A counselor’s journey back from burnout

Wellness matters

Doing our own work: A parallel process

Behind the Book: Counselor Self-Care

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

@TechCounselor: Counselors as innovators

By Adria S. Dunbar August 9, 2018

Have you ever been at work using a software system and thought to yourself, “It would be so nice if this software would let me do ___________”?

Maybe you wish collaborative comments were possible when a team of providers is involved in client care. Perhaps you’d like it if calendar reminders included a two-sentence summary of your last session so you could avoid opening a laptop between sessions. Maybe you’ve thought about how nice it would be if emails and faxes could be sent directly from the electronic health record you are using. Maybe you wish you could streamline aspects of your counseling practice or have more automated systems for tasks that are repetitive day after day. Perhaps you’d like to collect data from clients in a way that would help them reach their goals faster.

Stop for just a moment and think about your biggest frustrations (or pain points) at work. Are they universal issues that others in the counseling profession also experience? Could there be an innovative solution?

Typically, when counselors have a problem to solve or a thought to increase efficiency, we begin searching for innovative solutions that already exist — and hope that these solutions won’t be too expensive to adopt. Sometimes, we are even lucky enough to find a solution that mostly fits our needs as counselors. Although the innovation was actually created for health care professionals, the business world or other types of practitioners, we make due, find workarounds or settle for almost perfect. In some cases, finding and using these solutions seems to go well enough, but there also are many examples of ways in which borrowing technology from other fields falls short.

Now imagine what might be different if counselors and counselor educators were the innovators behind innovative technology solutions. How might software be different if it was created by a counselor? What are some counseling concepts that might find their way from our practice into the software we create? Mindfulness? Digital health? A strength-based focus? Wellness models?

How might the user experience be different? How might the content be more applicable to our work? How might our practice be improved through innovation that runs in the background and allows us to do the work we love instead of spending so much energy on the logistics of running a practice, providing supervision or training counselors?

As a counselor educator who values innovation and tech development, I spend a lot of time considering the ways in which our work could be improved if more counselors felt empowered to take their innovative ideas and turn them into something we could all use in our practices.

 

If you have examples of counselor-created software or other innovations that are working well for you, please contact me. I’d love to share them with readers here at CT Online.

 

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Adria S. Dunbar is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She has more than 15 years of experience with both efficient and inefficient technology in school settings, private practice and counselor education. Contact her at adria.dunbar@ncsu.edu.

 

@TechCounselor’s Instagram is @techcounselor.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.