Tag Archives: Counseling Connoisseur

Counseling Connoisseur: Trauma-informed return from COVID-19

By Cheryl Fisher July 6, 2021

“What lies behind us, and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”

— Henry Stanley Haskins

Jo Panuwat D/Shutterstock.com

[NOTE: This is this third piece in a COVID-19 recovery series. See the first and second installments.]

The sun shining in my windows rouses me before my alarm clock goes off, and I roll out of bed. After navigating around Elsa, my 3-year-old poodle, who is now sprawled across both sides of the bed (neither designated as hers), I make it to my dresser and pull out my workout clothes. I am a creature of habit and my workout routine is consistent. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I constructed a home gym and participated in Zoom and YouTube classes. Body Pump on Mondays and Fridays. Step on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Yoga in between. The only class I did not do from home was cycle which was replaced with outdoor cycling during good weather. It was not perfect, but it kept my body moving and my mind clear. Following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommended two-week wait after my last COVID-19 vaccination, I resumed my gym workouts, now masked and physically distanced.

That was until this week. I entered the gym, swiped my membership fob, and grabbed a towel. However, I noticed that the people behind the desk were smiling. SMILING! I realized that no one (except me) was wearing a mask. I looked up sheepishly and asked, “Are we clear to take off the mask?” The smiles and head nods continued. The CDC’s latest recommendations indicate that fully vaccinated people can meet both indoors and outdoors without masks. In twenty-four hours, my gym responded by lifting all capacity and mask restrictions. I took off my mask and walked to my class, where the taped Xs on the floor to promote physical distancing had already been removed. I set up my equipment in my usual location and waited as others trickled into class, each with a smile — and reservation. “I feel naughty not wearing my mask,” one person stated. “Is it weird that I still feel I need to stand 6 feet away from you?” another inquired. Even the instructor acted a bit disoriented around the new mandate. I watched as everyone navigated the change — such an abrupt turnabout from a year of fear, spent masking, distancing and washing to protect ourselves from a virus that changed our lives as we knew them.

Trauma-informed re-entry

The past year has been one of unprecedented circumstances. We have navigated lockdowns, a toilet paper shortage, remote work and virtual school. We have experienced loss—disconnection from family and friends, total disruption of routine and the loss of loved ones (see “Counseling Connoisseur: Navigating the losses of COVID-19”). Holidays and vacations were replaced with Zoom gatherings and staycations. The politicizing of the pandemic amplified confusion and fear.

There appeared to be some reprieve with the lifting of restrictions afforded by the distribution of the vaccine (see “Counseling Connoisseur: Hope in action and mental health“). However, we are far from being “back to normal.” Vaccination distribution continues with simultaneous bipartisan banter. Mask mandates have been relaxed, and we are left feeling both relieved and vulnerable. School and work are returning to brick-and-mortar spaces but with jubilation, but also reservation. As we return to some semblance of pre-COVID-19 life and routines, we are left with the fallout from the chaos of not only the pandemic but also the heated struggle against racial injustice and the violent insurrection on January 6.

As trauma therapists, we recognize that we cannot be expected to resume pre-COVID activities at full capacity. It will take time and work to re-integrate to the increase in sensory demand, schedule capacity and social engagement. We can help our clients and one another understand the changes and aid in a trauma informed re-entry. Here are a few tips:

  • Prepare for sensory demand: I was astonished at how even a drive on a major highway seemed daunting after a year in which my commute consisted of walking down the hallway to my makeshift office and an occasional outing to the park. I had basically stayed in a one-mile radius: grocery, gas station, home. Now I was traversing several lanes of traffic at high speeds and getting re-acquainted with reading road signs along the way. Allow the time and space to re-acclimate to the sensory demand.
  • Pace schedule capacity: A common conversation topic of late has been how the pandemic allowed us to rethink our schedules. Limited were the board meetings, book clubs and sports events. Optional activities were removed from our often-overbooked planners. Many people have commented on how the pandemic reinforced the importance of downtime that allowed people to spend time with their household members, take leisurely hikes in nature or simply reboot at home. With the excitement of re-entry comes the anticipation of the return to overloaded schedules. Now is the time to rethink those commitments. Set boundaries. Say no and give someone else an opportunity to make that bake sale cake or lead that community project. It is OK to step back from or choose not to re-enter the climate of busyness.
  • Plan for social re-engagement: I am currently writing this on my first airplane flight in a year and a half. I am heading to see my daughter, son-in-law and grandson. Fully vaccinated (yet still masked for travel), I cannot wait to hug my kids and enjoy just being with them. Yet, I know there will be momentary awkwardness as we remove our masks and re-engage. Oh, it will only be for a nanosecond, then I will kiss their whole faces — but that nanosecond is real! Except for virtual gatherings and get-togethers with our small bubble of family and friends, most of us have not witnessed real smiles and received real hugs in over a year. It may take time to adjust to social engagement. If you are returning to your workplace and encountering clients or co-workers, prepare to take time to just re-connect. Smiles, greetings, small talk. Allow for mask-wearing as you and others feel the need (or are still mandated). The art of connection is the counselor’s bailiwick. However, even we may need to allow additional “warm-up” time as we resume face-to-face sessions. Consider continuing to offer telehealth/virtual gatherings as you can allow for a safe return.

It has been a challenging time. While we are moving in a direction of healing, we are not there yet. There is still so much more to be cognizant of and prepare for as we return to our work, school and social lives. We are resilient and as counselors, we can help our family, friends and clients better acclimate in a trauma-informed way by helping them to prepare for sensory demand, pace schedule capacity and plan for social re-engagement.

 

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Cheryl Fisher

 

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

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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.

Counseling Connoisseur: Navigating the losses of COVID-19

By Cheryl Fisher March 22, 2021

[NOTE: This is this second piece in a COVID-19 recovery series. See the first installment here.]

Elsa, my 2-year-old poodle, and I enjoy our routine walks in the neighborhood. It has become more frequent since the onset of COVID-19, and we both look forward to the fresh air, change of scenery, and connecting with the neighbors as we pass by (socially distanced, of course). On this day, we approached the home of my new neighbors. They are a young couple, and during our last encounter, they indicated they were pregnant and expecting their first child. They had just pulled up in their driveway and were disembarking the vehicle as we walked toward them. “I’ll get him,” the husband called to his wife as he exited the car. “Oh, they had a boy,” I thought. “How wonderful.” I slowed my pace to see if I could get a peek from across the street where Elsa and I dawdled. He opened the back door to his vehicle and proceeded to unbuckle his son. Imagine my surprise when a toddler jumped out of the car! When did that happen?!

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I have heard it said that 2020 is the year that wasn’t. As we all stayed safe in our homes, socially distanced from friends and family, an entire year went by — without us. Oh, things happened, but many of us were not able to participate in the regular encounters that add richness to our lives. Weddings, births, celebrations, graduations and even funerals took place in non-traditional and much more private ways. Gatherings consisted of virtual or outdoor activities. Basic shopping was outsourced to delivery services, and additional errands occurred with faces shielded and six feet apart.

To make matters worse, the arrival of 2021 did not magically remove the pandemic or correct the social injustices and political tensions experienced. The losses have been and continue to be great. At the time of this column’s publication, the World Health Organization reports over 116 million confirmed global cases of COVID-19, and over 2.5 million people have died.

Navigating death during a pandemic is beyond challenging, as I experienced when my father-in-law died recently. He had contracted COVID-19, along with other residents in his assisted living community. He had recovered, but never completely. On Friday, Jan. 30, we received a call that his health was failing. My husband and I rushed to the facility where he resided. After testing negative to a rapid COVID test, we donned mask, shield and bodysuit to enter into my father-in-law’s room. Other than visits where we spoke through his window while we stood outdoors, it was the first time we had seen him in several months. He was unresponsive but resting peacefully. My husband asked me to set Pandora to Glen Miller (one of his father’s favorite musicians) and proceeded to tell his father about all that we had experienced since we last saw him. We rambled about the holidays (that we were unable to experience together), the home renovations we were starting and our hope to have family gathered as soon as safely possible.

Because only two people could visit at a time, we had to wrap up our visit when my brother-in-law and his wife arrived. My husband and I stood on either side of my father-in-law, rubbing his arm and holding his hand, and told him we would see him soon. We left knowing it would be our last time with him. He died early the following morning.

The grief associated with this loss is profound. As I discussed in an earlier article, “Counseling Connoisseur: Death and bereavement during COVID-19,” the traditional rituals that help in grief recovery are often altered or absent due to pandemic safety protocols.

In addition to the loved ones we have lost, there have been a plethora of other losses, actual and symbolic. Symbolic loss is often intangible. Sometimes it accompanies death but is not acknowledged as a loss. For example, my father-in-law’s memorial service is delayed until it is safe to gather, thereby preventing the emotional closure that funerals and memorials provide in the grief recovery process.

Other tangible losses include the millions of lost jobs due to the economic impact of the pandemic. The loss of community and social support during isolation and quarantine may be unquantifiable and thus “intangible,” but its effects are significant. Additionally, life happened — without us gathering to record or mark it. The loss caused by our inability to gather for significant events will become more and more evident as we begin (in time) to reconnect with friends and family.

For example, after becoming fully inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine and continuing to follow the Centers for Disease Control safety protocol, I returned to a couple of my favorite group fitness classes (now small, ventilated, physically distanced, and masked). It felt like a homecoming after a yearlong hiatus. The four or five of us in attendance spent the first few minutes of class just catching up. “So, what did you do this past year?” It was uncanny how life had continued for each of us apart. There had been cancer remissions, divorces and retirements, along with weddings and babies born. Except for what I like to term the “COVID cushion” of a few pounds of weight gain for some of us, everyone looked the same. They looked great. I had not realized how much I had missed this community of women I have sweated with side by side for over twenty years!

There have been so many losses this year, and the eager anticipation of a return to some semblance of normalcy is palpable. However, things have changed, and it is important to prepare our clients and ourselves with tools to navigate the losses resulting from the pandemic.

Navigating loss

Prepare for change: Life has continued, and things have changed. An entire year has passed in the lives of our family and friends. While you may have remained in contact, it will be different when it is safe to resume getting together this year. People may have died or moved. New members may have joined the family or friend group. Expect change.

Acknowledge loss: Recognize the changes. Honor the losses. Gatherings may be bittersweet. So much time has passed. So much has been missed. So much economic hardship for so many individuals. Talk about it. Journal. Seek therapeutic support.

You can’t go back, but you can move forward: The truth is that even when it is safe to resume previous activities, it will never be the same. It can’t be. Too much has happened. While we may mourn the past, maybe that is not a bad thing. Perhaps, we can use our experiences and create a better future with what we know now. As C.S Lewis suggested, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

 

The pandemic has brought a lot of loss. While we are more cognizant of the actual losses of death, we must also be aware of the symbolic losses we have experienced. We can acknowledge the sadness of missing out on life experiences, the inability to give comfort in person when family and friends struggle with health or economic distress, or the loss of group celebrations. We can recognize the cumulative grief and fear caused by the pandemic and political injustices. We can prepare ourselves for the shock and mourning that may accompany our re-entry into our post-lockdown lives over the next year, brace for the changes that occurred while we remained sheltered in place, and ready ourselves for life to continue.

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

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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.

Counseling Connoisseur: Hope in action and mental health

By Cheryl Fisher February 16, 2021

Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness. – Desmond Tutu

 

[NOTE: This is this first piece in a COVID-19 recovery series]

Without a doubt, 2020 was a challenging year. Many of us greeted the New Year with arms wide open in anticipation of better days ahead. Out with the old and in with the new. The months of isolation, social and physical distancing, masking up and suffering so many losses has taken their toll on our mental health. Public surveys and reports from mental health authorities show that rates of depression and anxiety have increased exponentially as people attempt to navigate remote work, virtual classrooms or even worse — unemployment. Election fatigue, inaugural distress and racial injustice continue to plague society. Coping strategies are restricted with the closing of gyms, places of worship and many other gathering spaces due to COVID-19. Reports of Zoom fatigue have blanketed media. People who have access to resources are reaching out to mental health providers who are also feeling the exhaustion from a year of unprecedented circumstances. My own practice has been booked months in advance, and I am turning away new client inquiries and referring to colleagues whose schedules are also full.

Yes, 2020 was a year like no other for many of us. Only time will tell if 2021 will be as chaotic, but we already face challenges such as continuing political unrest, the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the presence of new, more transmissible COVID-19 variants and the snail-paced vaccine distribution process. As we forge ahead, recovery from the trauma will take time, patience and work. Yet, there are signs of change. Glimmers of hope. Flickers of light from the shards of a very broken year.

The New Year promised a fresh start, and the appearance of the “Christmas Star” on the Winter Solstice was a beautiful way to usher in 2021. The “star” is actually an astronomical event during which Jupiter and Saturn align so closely that they look like one radiant light.

Although Saturn and Jupiter align with each other every 20 years, it has been 400 years since they were this close to each other and nearly 800 years since the “Great Conjunction” occurred at night. Some have speculated that the star described in the Bible as leading the three Wise Men to the site of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem was, in truth, a Great Conjunction. Whatever the explanation, it was a sign of hope and peace to those who followed — and the key element is they followed.

Saturn, top, and Jupiter, below, are seen after sunset from Shenandoah National Park, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Luray, Virginia. Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Hope and mental health

As mental health clinicians, we know the importance of hope in wellness. Yet, we often forget that hope is also a verb. We create a space for hope in our sessions with our clients. We hold hope when our clients are unable.

There are three elements that accompany the experience of hope.

Having goals

Having something to work toward can provide us with structure and predictability. However, we want to craft goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely (SMART). That should sound familiar to counselors. Often goals are too broad. For example, in my other life I owned an aerobic company and often provided personal training to people who attended the aerobic classes. Goal setting was an integral part of the training. At times, my clients would give me goals such as, “I want to be healthy.” “I want to be skinny.” “I want to be happy.” or “ I want to be active.” I would follow up each request with “What exactly does that mean? Paint a picture for me of what being “healthy, skinny, happy, or active” means to you? Then we would break it down into specific, manageable goals in which “being healthy” may mean running a first 5K race or being skinny may mean losing 10 pounds.

This year, one of my big goals is to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary this summer with family face to face, even if we need to meet outdoors. I have missed my family desperately this year. However, we have family members who are vulnerable, and we have resisted gathering this year because of the risks of COVID-19. What more joyous way is there to come out of the darkness of the pandemic than by celebrating the commitment and legacy of my parents’ union together.

Feeling empowered to shape your daily life.

Envisioning the outcome of your goal is so much a part of the process. Performance psychologists have utilized imagery for decades with athletes. Imagine yourself as already attaining the goal. Feel it already accomplished.

It is also important to recognize our agency and there are times when we really do not have control over things. I like to ask myself, “What do I have control over? What don’t I have control over?” I then focus on areas under my control.

For example, I worked toward a family gathering goal with something I could control by scheduling renovations to my home during the pandemic lockdown. I now have the space to celebrate when I am able to gather with my family again.

Additionally, I have been fortunate to be included in the first rounds of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. So, I will be fully immunized, as will be most (if not all) of my family members by summer. While I still anticipate taking precautions, there will be greater confidence in gathering.

Identifying ways to make goals happen.

Really lean into the role you play in accomplishing your goals. What steps do you need to take to achieve them? If you want an advanced degree, what is the next step? Information gathering? Taking the GRE? Applying for funding? Create a chart of the actual actions needed to be taken to achieve your goal.

As I make ready my home for celebrations and follow the CDC guidelines around my vaccine schedule and follow up protocol, I am furthering the vaccination efforts by volunteering with my local medical response corps. I am assisting in providing human resources to advance the distribution of the vaccines so that my family and community will have a better chance of achieving full immunization sooner. Check with your local agencies to see how you can promote the change you want to see. For example, senior and community centers need assistance with helplines that reach out to vulnerable populations to help them navigate the online vaccine registration process.

Hope in action requires motion. It requires feeding the flame with movement toward goals, desires, dreams. Hope is choosing to look beyond the darkness to recognize even the smallest glimmers of light and then magnifying them with our words, actions and deeds. The Wise Men saw the brightness of the star, and rather than stay in the darkness, they chose to follow the light. That is hope. Hope in action.

Let your COVID-19 recovery begin with hope in action.

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

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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.

Counseling Connoisseur: Holidays 2020

By Cheryl Fisher December 16, 2020

“This is the season when people of all faiths and cultures are pushing back against the planetary darkness. We string bulbs, ignite bonfires, and light candles. And we sing.” —Anita Diamant

The holiday season is upon us, and navigating tradition with safety during the pandemic has proven challenging. The current dramatic surge of COVID-19 infections has resulted in a return to greater restrictions and fewer opportunities to safely meet with family and friends. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended avoiding inside gatherings that include anyone outside our immediate household. An alternative is to gather outdoors, but the weather in colder climes makes this more difficult. This reduced ability to gather with loved ones may make this winter seem particularly dark. Yet, we are resilient, and, as we are reminded, this is a season that is about bringing light into darkness at its core.

Traditional winter holidays

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish celebration marking the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees after their victory over the Syrians. Upon entering the Temple for battle, the Maccabees immediately relit the ner tamid (eternal light) with a small amount of oil that should only have lasted a day. Miraculously, it lasted eight days. Celebrants mark this by lighting one candle on each of the eight nights of the holiday.

Kwanzaa is an African American celebration of family and community that lasts from December 26 to January 1. The holiday honors seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The Candlelighting Ceremony is central to Kwanzaa and takes place at time when all family members are gathered. Seven candles — representing the seven principles — are placed in the Kinara (candleholder). Beginning on the 26th, one candle is lit each day.

Diwali is a five-day Hindu festival beginning on the 15th day of the month of Kartika (sometime during October or November on the Gregorian calendar). Also known as the “row of lights” it symbolizes good triumphing over evil and light over darkness and is celebrated with music, dance and lights.

Advent is the season in which many Christian denominations prepare for the birth of Jesus Christ with prayers of anticipation and for peace and hope. Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas. Part of the observance centers on the Advent wreath, which has five candles; one lit on each of the four Sundays and one in the center to be lit on Christmas Day.

The Winter Solstice is the first day of winter and the longest night of the year. Many of the elements of modern winter holidays are drawn from traditions in past celebrations of the solstice. Numerous cultures continue to celebrate this day with various rituals, including the lighting of candles, bonfires, or the burning of a Yule log to celebrate the eventual return of the sun following the coming time of darkness.

 

Celebrations that center on light span the globe. They mark the eventual return of the sun, new beginnings and the embrace of family. Amidst the pandemic that has dominated this year, it is more important than ever to find ways to keep those celebrations alive. Here are four things to consider when planning your holidays.

Manage expectations

While we have become more accustomed to limiting our social activities, it is important to recognize that this year’s holiday experience may be quite different than years gone by. Gatherings (if any) are much smaller and more subdued. Lean into the difference. Plan for the change.

Order in — One of my brothers usually hosts our grand Thanksgiving feast. This year, because we are honoring the recommendation to limit gatherings, each family will host its own meal. As I am a vegetarian and no one in the family trusts my ability to cook a turkey, I have ordered our turkey dinner from a local market so that my husband can get his fill of turkey and gravy while I prepare (and enjoy) my signature side dishes and desserts.

Drive-by desserts — Although we will not share a meal together, I am preparing my father-in-law’s delicious pumpkin custard pie and bringing it to the assisted living facility where he resides. We can gather outside his bedroom window for a few moments, enjoy a piece of pie and savor the precious time we have together.

Zoom gathering — While we all have Zoom fatigue, we are still so fortunate to have the opportunity to see loved ones in “real-time.” Zoom during your mealtime. FaceTime while taking an after-meal walk. Enjoy a phone call during coffee and dessert. Connect with your loved ones.

Traditions matter

Now, more than ever it is important to connect to that which solidifies our identity and heritage. Traditions matter!

Decorate — Holiday decorations are part of the experience and this year we are motivated to deck the halls sooner in the season. Trees are trimmed. Outdoor lights are hung. Neighborhoods are having decorating contests to ignite neighborhood engagement. Host your own virtual tree trimming party. Create an environment that welcomes celebration and holiday cheer.

Create socially distanced adventures — What activities are traditions in your family? Do you sing holiday songs? Do you have a jigsaw puzzle around which family gathers informally, placing puzzle pieces while sharing stories together? Borrowed from a creative neighbor of mine, I have initiated a Family Jigsaw Puzzle Frenzy. I sent each family the same puzzle. When everyone has received it, we will join on Zoom and officially begin the frenzy of puzzle making. Over the holidays, family members chronicle their progress with pictures and videos. Awards for the first puzzle completed, the last savored, the funniest photo or most memorable puzzle moment will be presented. The most important part of this endeavor is that families recognize that while we cannot be physically together, we can still engage in merriment together while apart. Be creative!

Cook holiday foods — Every year I make my mother-in-law’s famous gingerbread recipe for my husband and his family. She has long been deceased, but this recipe is reminiscent of a time when my mother-in-law was present, the family was all together, and the holiday magic was infused with the aromatic spices. This year, care packages of these yummy cookies will be gifted as a reminder of a simpler time and in hope of our gatherings soon to come.

Make music — Music soothes and inspires. Turn on those holiday tunes and let them ring. Sing out loud. Zoom in family and friends for a holiday sing-along. Do drive by caroling in your neighborhood. Allow the magic of music to be part of your holidays.

Connect — This is the year for holiday cards and letters. Bring out beautiful stationary. Write the annual family letters. Slip a teabag into a card and invite the receiver to share teatime with you. If you would prefer not to send paper cards, consider ecards or video greetings. Call people you think about but have not talked to in eons. Text “just thinking of you” random messages.

Journey within

The holidays are a perfect time for reflection and contemplation. Follow nature’s lead and allow yourself time to journey within.

Meditate — Take time to quiet your mind and experience stillness. Breath in the calm and exhale anything that is not serving you. Create an internal space for the holiday light to shine brightly.

Be in gratitude — Cultivating an attitude of gratitude is powerful. This year has offered many challenges. Despite these obstacles, are there things for which you are thankful? For example, in these trying times, I am incredibly grateful for the comfort of my home, food on my table and a warm bed at night.  Additionally, as a counselor, I have been able to resort to telehealth and continue to see my clients without fail. I am incredibly grateful for the work that I am privileged to do.

Journal — This is a great season to take pen to paper and write down thoughts from the year. Review the challenges, perhaps the losses and honor your emotions about these concerns. Note how resilient you are to have survived, possibly thrived the difficulties that 2020 has presented. Describe how you have navigated this unprecedented year and savor your resiliency.

Keep the faith

The holidays are also a time to lean into one’s beliefs and understandings around hope, peace, and community.

Read inspirational words — Minimize listening to and watching information that promotes fear and division. Focus on literature and media that are encouraging and unifying. Sacred texts, inspirational podcasts, positive and hopeful movies can plant seeds of hope and renewal.

Pay it forward — Alfred Adler knew the value of social interest in overall well-being. Consider sending a care package to first responders. Order a meal to be delivered to local emergency room staff. Pay for a stranger’s coffee in the drive-through line. For example, I have taken home-baked cookies and treats to the local fire and police departments and leave Starbucks gift cards for the postal and delivery workers over the holiday. It does not need to be costly. Volunteer at an animal shelter. Randomly rake your neighbor’s front lawn. Shovel the snow (yes, we are already seeing snow in some areas) from the sidewalk in front of another’s home. Create a neighborhood swap by setting up a table in front of your yard and inviting neighbors to take or borrow your used books, puzzles or games.

Be the change — If you want peace, promote unity and connectedness. Invite conversations with those who differ in your beliefs or understandings. Listen with an open mind and heart and hold the space for differences to be tolerated. If you want hope, cultivate a positive presence with inspirational words and actions. Sponsor a family or child in need. Use your personal power to advocate for those whose voices may be marginalized.

 

This year has been difficult. It has posed many obstacles to endure. However, it has also allowed us to tap into our skillset around patience and innovation. It has allowed opportunities for us to demonstrate kindness and generosity. It has promoted the development of resiliency. This holiday season, use those skills to ignite the flame of hope and love. To quote author Hamilton Wright Mabie, “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.”

From my family to yours, Happy Holidays!

 

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Related reading from Cheryl Fisher:

The Counseling Connoisseur: Enjoying the holidays by letting go of expectations”

“The Counseling Connoisseur: Cultivating silence in a noisy world”

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

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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.

Counseling Connoisseur: Counselors, pets and COVID-19

By Cheryl Fisher November 17, 2020

Isolation is the worst possible counselor.”

– Miguel de Unamuno

 

COVID-19 has provided a unique opportunity to return previously external occupations such as education and employment to the home. This is often doubly true for counselor educators and students as both classroom and clinical practice are being offered via virtual formats.

This transition has not been without challenges. Whether it is a wardrobe failure caught on camera or a feline sprawled across the keyboard, the virtual classroom and telehealth have blurred the boundaries of our privacy. Classmates, faculty and clients now have access to aspects of our home life. Virtual backgrounds may provide the appearance of an office-like environment veiling the reality of the basement, spare bedroom or even closet. However, household sounds are not as easily silenced when unmuted and meetings now often include the bark or purr of the canine or feline household member.

Additionally, the virtual world is a reminder of the distance required during this pandemic. Water cooler talk and happy hours are now hosted through chats, emails and Zoom meetings. Physical connection is relegated to those deemed safe enough to be in one’s “bubble” such as immediate family members and close friends.

Included in that bubble are the family pets. According to researcher and professor of anthropology, Brian Fagan in his book titled The Intimate Bond: How Animals Shaped Human History, “More than fifteen thousand years ago, relationships of familiarity and respect led to cooperation and companionship between people and wolves, the ancestors of the first animals to become members of human families.”

The human-animal connection has led to an interdependent relationship that has provided physical and emotional satisfaction and support for both human and other-than-human companions.

Pets motivate movement

Sitting for hours in front of the computer is contributing to Zoom fatigue and an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle. Animals motivate movement, encourage play and promote venturing outdoors for walks. For example, my own standard poodle will indicate when it is time for my work break by staring me down. Should I not respond, she resorts to a gentle (but firm and repeated) tap on my shoulder. If I am still remiss in acquiescing her request to go outside, she will break into a barrage of vocalizations that begin as soft whines of malcontent and escalate to barks of infuriation.

One of my counselors-in training described how her pets have navigated the pandemic and motivated family walks and mutual support.

“We have two dogs, a whoodle (wheaton terrier/poodle cross) named Buffy and Coyote, a rescue, who is a terrier mix of some kind.  Buffy looks like a teddy bear and when she isn’t cuddled up with my two boys she is hunting rodents and rattlesnakes. She really lives up to the name Buffy. What can I say about Coyote? Well, he’s a chicken. He’s afraid of his own shadow. The best thing that ever happened to him is this darn pandemic because we are all at home where he can keep tabs on us.  The pandemic has forced us to spend way more time together as a family (for better or worse!) and that includes our dogs. The one thing that we started to do as a family is taking the dogs for a walk. I’m not sure why it took a pandemic to make this a family event but I’m not going to complain, and I know the dogs won’t either.”

Pets decrease symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression

The stressors that have accompanied the pandemic are numerous. Animals are also sensitive to the stress experienced by their human and strive to mediate the challenges. According to Stephanie Borns-Weil, the head of behavior service at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, animals are also adjusting to everyone being home and trying to navigate the increase in activity. However, routine engagement with pets appears to decrease the stress hormone cortisol and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression for both human and animal. For example, one client shared this story about her German shepherd:

“After the lockdown, I was feeling sad and isolated. He [the dog] started to see I was in bed a lot. After some time, he would pull me out of bed. Then moved me away from the couch and showing me he was getting fat as well as myself. So, the next morning, he pulled me out of bed and away from the couch. I changed my clothes and started walking. We just walked for 40 minutes, just to be outside and get some fresh air. It started for me to change my habits, diet, routine and even conversation.”

Pets provide companionship without baggage

Pets help decrease loneliness by giving and seeking companionship without the complex emotional conditions of many human relationships. This is not simply an emotional connection but a neurological bond set by increased levels of the neurotransmitter oxytocin in both humans and animals. During the pandemic, people’s increased need for companionship has resulted in an increase in the fostering and adoption of rescue animals. People are searching for that uncomplicated and fulfilling connection. For one client family the pit bull mix they rescued during the lockdown has been a calming presence and a constant companion for their children.

“She [the dog] has given the children unconditional love, a calming presence, and provided us purpose during these eight months of being at home. During the children’s ‘recess’ time from distance learning, we take her on walks around the park and play ball. She forces us to get outside to play and laugh! She keeps us in the present moment. She snuggles them, kisses them and is truly a light during darker days! We are so grateful for her companionship during these challenging times.”

For many people, pets aren’t just companions. As this story shared by a colleague demonstrates, the connection and concern we feel marks them as part of our families.

“My dog has also been my pandemic buddy, sitting next to me through Zoom calls and virtual therapy sessions. We have gone on daily walks and snuggle times on the couch as I did my notes. Sadly, during the last four months he experienced a spinal injury that got progressively worse. We’ve been working with our vet and he’s getting stronger and I can’t imagine what the long days working from home would be like without him.”

Domesticated animals and humans have a long history together. From predator and prey to companions, the relationship is both complex and primal. The pandemic has also invited a greater awareness of our coexistence with many species. Coyotes were sighted in San Francisco, bears in the streets of Los Angeles, and a peacock even adopted a London primary school and the surrounding neighborhood. Many attributed the pandemic-induced reduction in human activity to these increased sightings of wild animals in urban settings.

The human-animal connection is an interdependent relationship and one that can be especially healing during difficult times. When the time comes (and it will) when we begin to return to our classrooms and office spaces, it is important to remember that our pets will also need time to adjust to the changes. While some may be relieved by the quiet, others may be saddened to lose their daytime buddies.

However, never fear. Our pets are faithful and will let us know that deep down they will always forgive us and are ever ready for a luxurious rub behind the ears or a brisk walk in the park. Perhaps it is just as Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, one of the first Westerners to live with the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert and chronicle their relationships with animals and the author of The Hidden Life of Dogs, noted, “No person is too old or ugly or poor or disabled to win the love of a pet — they love us uncritically and without reserve.”

 

This is dedicated to my co-therapist, 12-year-old golden doodle, Max who died suddenly in July. Your friendship and guidance is sorely missed.

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

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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.