Tag Archives: Counseling Connoisseur

The Counseling Connoisseur: The contour of hope in trauma

By Cheryl Fisher March 30, 2018

“Nothing is hopeless; we must hope for everything.”― Euripides

 

Recently I was invited to provide an afternoon keynote at a conference examining community trauma and human violence. The morning keynote speaker, Reverend Matt Crebbin, gave a compelling presentation about his congregation’s role in helping Newtown, Connecticut rise from the violence that devastated Sandy Hook Elementary School and the surrounding community on December 14, 2012. In his speech, Crebbin discussed the reality of the pain and suffering resulting from the fatal shooting of 20 elementary school-aged children* and noted that the scars would forever run deep as Newtown attempts to create a “new normal.” The keynote ended with his personal call to advocacy aimed at ending the cycle of gun violence. The conference was held just two weeks after the Parkland High School shooting.

(*The Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School left six adults and 20 children dead, as well as the 20-year-old shooter, who took his own life. His mother was killed earlier that day in her Newtown home.)

Later that day, I presented a summary of vicarious and secondary trauma, moral distress and introduced a nature-informed resiliency model of care for caregivers. How do we, as counselors, take care of ourselves amid such tragedy and pain? How do we hold the space for devastation and not become prey to its effects? How can we use this space for healing?

Although the session was well-received, I found my words lacking substance and weight — a thin veneer of comfort in the face of the morning’s recounting of despair. There are no answers that can return these children to their families; no words that can mend the broken hearts or rebuild the shattered dreams of these communities. I wondered, if, as a grieving counselor-client once proclaimed to me, we are all frauds.

The conference ended with a panel discussion I took part in. As I perched in my seat next to Rev. Crebbin, microphone in hand, the moderator asked me, “What about hope?” I sat baffled for a moment as I searched for a few bits of wisdom to impart. After all, I imbue my graduate students with the title of Ambassadors of Hope because we hold the space for hope to ignite within our clients. I muttered a few brief, albeit flimsy, answers and concluded. However, the question lingered long after the panel had ended: “What about hope?”

Hope

Hope theory, developed by the researcher, author and psychologist Charles R. Snyder and colleagues, describes hope as a process characterized by the determination to reach one’s goals and the ability to make plans to meet those goals. Erik Erikson defined hope as “both the earliest and the most indispensable virtue inherent in the state of being alive.” There are agency and action in the experience of hope. The research is undeniable — experiencing hope is associated with life satisfaction and positive aspects of well-being. Conversely, an absence of hope is related to depression, anxiety and an overall sense of despair.

Therefore, how do we help clients access hope? Pamela McCarroll, in her book The End of Hope-The Beginning: Narratives of Hope in the Face of Death and Trauma describes five experiences of hope in an attempt to capture some of its complexity “in the face of endings, in the face of death and trauma, in the face of the unalterable and unwanted crises in life.”  McCarroll asserts that hope and despair are not binary, but a continuum mediated by time where “hope represents a future filled with possibilities.”

According to McCarroll, these are the five ways in which we express hope:

  • Fight: Hope as fight capitalizes on the tension between giving up and moving forward. Hope is cultivated as one discerns a path to forge in battle. As counselors, we can help clients identify what is worth fighting for, such as “that which feeds life, love, connectedness, gratitude, meaning and transcendent possibility.”
  • Meaning: Hope as meaning is manifested in the ways that we honor the lives of our loved ones. Recently I was invited to be the presenter on the topic of children’s grief and spirituality at a lecture series. The series was named after a college freshman who had been killed in a car accident tragically. Her parents created this lecture series to honor the life of their daughter, a talented athlete and dedicated student.
  • Survival: Hope as survival is complex. The survivor often feels stuck between the past and the present. Care requires concern for safety, remembrance of events and mourning losses, reconnection to self, others and something sacred, and ultimately channeling trauma to a greater good. Hope as survival is lived through the recovery process of survivors. Just today a client disclosed [to me] that as a survivor of a sexual assault, she speaks out to other women in the hope of helping to empower others.
  • Lament: Hope as lament can be understood in the cries of the families who mourn the tragic loss of loved ones from violence. Lamenting demonstrates the meaningfulness of relationship and the pain of endings. To lament is to love; to love is to hope. According to McCarroll, “hope murmurs in the expression of ruptured love” and “sometimes it is the only language of hope available.” This is a language that seeks to be heard and shared. The funeral or memorial is a space where lamenting is welcomed and shared.
  • Surrender: Hope as surrender invites letting go and letting as is translate to living moment-by-moment. McCarroll suggests that “surrender feeds hope by engaging a posture of trust and receptivity-rather than defeat.” It embraces that which cannot be changed and allows space for forgiveness to enter.

 

Hope may present as an act of advocacy (fight), or the development of a lecture series (meaning), or community efforts for trauma recovery (survival), or memorials (lament) or rituals for release (surrender).

We, as counselors, hold the space for pain and suffering to reside while we attempt to help our clients make sense of their broken worlds. In order to be an anchor, we must spend some time with our own meaning-making philosophy or theology. How do we understand the suffering of the world? Maybe our understanding is simply that we don’t understand. We don’t have the answers. McCarroll proposes that many have lost hope amid such suffering and tragedies.

Further, we need to craft a common story with a shared vision that allows for differences and complexity and affords a unified message of hope. Maybe we need to be more than Ambassadors of Hope. Maybe, as suggested by the character Mrs.Which in Madeleine L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time, we must dare to be warriors. Warriors of hope.

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is an assistant professor and program coordinator for the Alliant International University- California School of Professional Psychology online clinical counseling program. Her research interests include spirituality and meaning-construction; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She will be presenting “Superhero Therapy 101” and “Homegrown Psychotherapy: Nature-Enhanced Counseling” at the Association for Creativity in Counseling conference in September. Contact her 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.

The Counseling Connoisseur: Compassion and self-care during flu season

By Cheryl Fisher February 16, 2018

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” ― Audre Lorde

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The familiar buzz from my bedside wakes me. Squinting, I pick up my cell phone, and I see that a client is notifying me of her current malady. She describes, in detail, her symptoms which include a fever, digestive discontent and upper respiratory discomfort. “But I plan on coming to my appointment tomorrow, Dr. Fisher,” she writes. I bolt up from the comfort of my bed, now fully awake at the thought of this client infecting my office, and reply as therapeutically as I can at 2 a.m., “Oh my goodness, no. Please stay home, drink lots of liquids and get your rest. We can reschedule for next week.” Whew! Crisis averted. Dodged that one! I roll over and resume my sleep, albeit a bit less restful.

A few hours later, I am (again) awakened by my phone. It is another client who has been up all night vomiting. She will not be in today. Thank goodness! Again, I write a compassionate and caring response wishing her a speedy recovery. I roll over and surrender to an extra hour of sleep.

My alarm sounds and I roll out of bed and prepare for my very full day — minus the two clients who are ill.

My phone rings. It’s a client who was driving to the office and had to stop because she doubled over in intestinal distress. Another client ill! No worries —

I have paperwork to do. I settle in front of my computer, and I notice an email — another client is sick and won’t be making her appointment.

I begin making calls from my cancellation list as I wait for my next client. I am able to fill most of the open spaces. I note the time — my next client should have arrived. I open my office door and walk to the waiting area, where my next client sits, complete with glazed and droopy eyes and a red runny nose. With a deep cough, he stands and extends his hand, which is stuffed with tissues.

It’s flu season!

As counselors, we sit with people who are in emotional and psychological pain and discomfort. We provide them with a compassionate and welcoming space to express their pain with the hope of lightening the load and identifying strategies for care. Our physical wellness informs our mental comfort and we certainly want to be available for our clients. I would like to think of myself as a compassionate person. I know my clients certainly hold me to this standard. However, how do we offer compassion and promote self-care?

Here are a few tips to get you and your clients through this cold and flu season:

  1. Wash your hands frequently: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends thoroughly washing hands frequently throughout the day. If soap and water are not accessible, keep a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your office and waiting area.
  2. Offer tissues: As counselors, we understand the comfort in a box of tissues. Be certain to have several boxes on hand for clients. Do not forget to also have multiple trash receptacles available.
  3. Keep fluids on hand: I offer my clients filtered water, coffee, hot chocolate, or tea. I like to keep a variety of teas including echinacea, peppermint, ginger and chamomile for their various soothing qualities. I also have local honey on hand.
  4. Assemble a care kit: Keep a care kit of lip balm (for yourself), lotion and hard candies. I keep separate hand lotion for clients by the sinks in my kitchenette and in the bathroom. I have a bowl of Key lime-flavored hard candy in my office and waiting areas. This extra effort can offer great comfort during the cold season.
  5. Disinfect your office: I spray my office at the beginning and end of my day with a natural disinfectant spray to eliminate possible contaminants. It cleanses the air and makes the office smell great.
  6. Use sanitary wipes to clean surfaces: I keep a container of sanitary wipes on hand to wipe down my phone, desktop, computer and the arms and backs of furniture. Body oils (and germs) can build up and remain on furniture.
  7. Clarify your cancellation policy: I inform my clients during the intake that I will waive the late cancellation fee for illness. I prefer that they stay home and rest rather than come into the office — for everyone’s sake.
  8. Consider offering teletherapy: I became a distance certified counselor (DCC) many years ago and provide phone and web-based counseling sessions under a variety of circumstances. Many of my clients opt for teletherapy when the weather is poor while caring for a sick relative, or when they are not feeling well but want the support of therapy. Counselors need not be certified to offer teletherapy, but I highly recommend it. Some insurance companies offer reimbursement for distance counseling, so check with your provider.

 

This time of year offers multiple challenges including colds and flu. As counselors, we can provide our clients with psychoeducation around the importance of self-care, rest, nutrition, exercise and fresh air. We can model good care by engaging in a healthy lifestyle. And, when we do succumb to the flu, we can demonstrate care by taking the time off to get the rest we need. We can offer compassion while promoting self-care.

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty at Loyola and Fordham Universities. 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.

The Counseling Connoisseur: New Year’s resolutions

By Cheryl Fisher January 12, 2018

“When the well is dry, we know the worth of the water.” — Benjamin Franklin

 

The holidays are over. The ornaments are boxed and put away. The tree is at the curb ready to be recycled for mulch. The eggnog and cookies are gone leaving behind only the memory as I tug my snug jeans over my more rounded hips. I sit back in my recliner and sip my holiday tea which offers hints of mocha and peppermint, evaluating this past year’s events.

It was a year filled with grief and transition: The death of a beloved pet, job transitions and surgeries. It was also a year of beginnings and opportunities: New speaking engagements, a book contract and a new academic position. In 2017, life continuously oscillated between joyous highs to devastating lows. What a ride!

I evaluated my self-care over this past year and (like many) I find I fell short in some areas. I exercise regularly and eat well, but I still don’t drink enough water. I overschedule, loving everything I have the privilege to do — but leaving little space for much needed quiet. I want to write more and that requires (at least for me) quiet and time. So, I put pen to paper and begin my process of resolving to offer myself better care in the New Year … and so it begins.

 

Wellness Wheel

The idea of self-care, although essential, tends to elude caregivers and those of us in the helping professions. We preach it to our clients. However, we become our own exception to the rules of wellness. Further, overall wellness encompasses all aspects of our life to include relationships and finances. The United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has created a wellness model that includes eight dimensions that contribute to physical and mental health.

  1. Emotional

Helpers need help, at times, in processing difficult experiences. Recently, a grieving therapist-friend lamented: “We are all liars! We tell our clients all about grief and loss, assuring them that things get better … but they don’t!”

I allowed her to continue her disgruntled evaluation of the pain and suffering that accompanies grief and then asked, “So, you are saying that just because we as clinicians know the grief process we are not immune to the actual pain?”

We bleed just like any other human, I reminded her. We feel hurt, and pain — and we suffer. Even if we have an intellectual understanding of the process, we still must endure the journey.

What supports do you have in place? Who can you call upon for guidance? How are you coping with your life’s challenges?

  1. Environmental

Our internal wellness is informed by our external surroundings. When I decided to start a private practice, I created a vision around the environment in which I wanted to spend six to eight hours each day seeing clients. I thought of my favorite colors, turquoise and green, and the most peaceful setting: the beach. I went to my nearest Pier 1 Imports store and let the designer go to town picking out dark-stained wicker furniture with pillows and wall art of batik with inspirational hand-painted words such as love, inspire, believe, peace. I added a few pieces of sea glass and shells from my travels and voila!

How do your personal and professional environments support you? Do they offer a peaceful haven or chaos and disorganization?

  1. Financial

Financial wellness is an area that many individuals find difficult to examine. Early in my career I was barely making enough to pay my bills, let alone think about a portfolio. However, what I have learned is that seeking the expertise of a financial professional helped me begin to see how I could create a solid personal plan — even with meager beginnings. There are numerous resources that can help address your financial needs and help you develop a realistic plan. It is easier than you think!

How are you contributing to your financial health?

  1. Intellectual

We are creative beings. We need stimulation and imaginative ways to express and expand our knowledge and skills. For example, a year before ACA’s 2016 Conference & Expo in Montréal, I committed to learning a bit of French. I spent every morning rehearsing. My mother, who is French- Canadian, tested me as we ventured through the produce isle of a grocery store.  More recently, I became a student of backyard foraging. Yes, I walk the trails looking for bounty: wild berries, mushrooms, rose hips and greens. My passion for nature therapy ignites as I learn more about the intricate communication between the plants and animals. I get excited when I put together a delicious feast from my foraged treasure.

In what ways are you stimulating your mind?

  1. Occupational

I love my work! Each day I experience variety in client needs. I enjoy sharing theory and application with my students. Writing joins my clinical and academic work to complete my professional trifecta. I love my work so much that I often overschedule: I see 30 clients in my practice, I teach six classes for three universities, I am a national presenter, I have a column that I contribute to monthly, and now I have a book contract and a full-time university faculty offer. Clearly, something has to give (stay tuned!).

How does your occupation meet your needs? Are you satisfied with your work-life-balance? Or, like me, is it time for you to re-evaluate?

  1. Physical

Our bodies need attention. We need food, water, rest — and to be active. Exercise is such an important part of my life. I like to move. It feels good to sweat. Yet, I have an incredibly sedentary job — I sit all day long. In addition to my hour-long gym class, I’ve created movement throughout my day to mediate the effects of hours of sitting. Others with sedentary jobs are employing standing desks, or taking short walks around the office just to stretch. My Fitbit reminds me to attend to all of the elements of physical health.

How are you taking care of your physical wellness? Do you carry a water bottle to hydrate? Do you take walks regularly and get fresh air?

  1. Social

We are social creatures. Abraham Maslow pointed out decades ago that once the immediate needs of food, shelter and safety have been met, we need to feel like we belong. That sense of belonging comes from having the support of others. For some, family may not serve as a support system. While my family is a source of great support, I also like to create a network within my community. For example, when I moved to Annapolis (almost 20 years ago), I did drive-by visits to my most important sources of connection. I interviewed churches. I located gyms. I identified several coffee shops. I found dog parks and trails.  Clients have since told me about the Meetup.com concept of identifying groups of like-minded persons.

How is your social wellness?

  1. Spiritual

In The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, author and researcher Brené Brown writes:

“Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.”

Research continues to find that experiencing the sacred provides us with wellness, healing, support and a sense of meaning.  Years ago, I helped my faith community start a Prayer Shawl Ministry (a spiritual practice that involves shawls that provide comfort and solace to those in need). As a card-carrying feminist, I am drawn toward the feminine sacred, even within traditional religious practices. So, it was such a great opportunity to convene with other women in meditation and click our needles together with intention as we crafted shawls for ill church members. Influenced by my Celtic heritage, I find beauty and the divine in natural settings. Engaging in nature is sacred for me and promotes moments of awe and wonder. It nourishes my spirit.

 

How do you cultivate awe and wonder in your life? What do you find sacred and meaningful? How do you craft opportunities to nourish your spiritual health?

  

Conclusion

It is a new year. A time to ponder past experiences and future dreams, re-evaluate relationships and let go of old habits and develop newer, more nourishing, ones. As I review my wellness wheel, I find that there are several areas with which I am pleased — and a few that I will choose to modify in order to bring greater balance to my rich, full life.

 

Be kind to your body, gentle with your mind and patient with your heart.

Stay true to your spirit, cherish your soul and never doubt yourself.

You are still becoming, my love, and there is no one more deserving

of the nurturing grace of your love.

“Kindness” -Becca Lee

 

Happy New Year!

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty at Loyola and Fordham Universities. 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.

The Counseling Connoisseur: Cultivating “awesomeness” (lessons from a snowflake)

By Cheryl Fisher December 21, 2017

“Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough.” ― Emily Dickinson

 

I recently had a visit from my daughter, son-in-law and (almost) five-year-old grandson, Nicolas. They reside in Florida and in an attempt to make up for an absent Thanksgiving, we combined the holidays in one fun-filled long weekend. I wanted each day to be magical. I thoughtfully made my list of activities crafted to not only engage my active grandson, but to create memorable moments. We would go ice skating, bring home-baked gingerbread to our local police and fire stations, watch the boat parade of lights, go to church together and open our home to family and friends for holiday cheer.

In the week prior, Nicolas had submitted his one and only request. “Can we have snow, Yaya (his name for me)?” He longed for snow, having watched the Disney movie Frozen half a dozen times. I informed him that this was not my department, but I would certainly consider it. His prayers were answered, and on that Saturday morning flakes began to drift from the sky. We bundled up, grabbed Max, my golden doodle, and ventured out into this new phenomenon of snow. Nicolas tilted his head back and stuck out his tongue, then squealed, “I caught one, Yaya! It is yummy!” I laughed at my rosy-cheeked grandson whose eyes, wide as saucers, were gazing at the sky tracking the snow until it got close enough to lap up with his extended tongue. He chuckled with delight and clapped his mitten-clad hands with each conquest.

“I’m gonna make a snowball …and we are going to have a battle!” Nicolas declared as he scooped up a fistful of the white powder and threw it. Then he scooped another. He lapped and scooped our entire walk and challenged the remaining family, toasty warm and waiting at the house, to a game of snow football. We made snow angels, snow castles and snow cones. There was pure joy that emanated from my grandson on this early December snowfall. Some saw a cold, dreary, icky day, but Nicolas saw magic!

The Science of Awe and Wonder

According to neuropsychologist Paul Pearson, awe is our eleventh emotion. It is “an overwhelming and bewildering sense of connection with a startling universe that is usually far beyond the narrow band of consciousness.” Awe is transformative. It opens us to a world greater than ourselves. Research indicates that the experience of awe and wonder is accompanied by a sense of overall wellness. This is believed to be related to the decreasing levels of cytokines (proteins that stress the immune system). Conversely, elevated cytokines are associated with depression. Therefore, there is a direct impact on emotional and psychological wellbeing when exposed to awe-inspiring situations.

Not only is the experience of awe and wonder life-enhancing, the experience of awesomeness in life increases life satisfaction, generosity and empathy. One study found that when people attended to beautiful images of nature and plants (such as a sunset or a canyon) they became more generous and empathetic. Therefore, finding awe and wonder in daily life may promote not only one’s own experience of wellness, but perpetuate altruistic behavior, in general.

Ways to Wonder

In the busy, hustle and bustle of modern day living, the call to pause and take in the moment is evidenced by the plethora of literature beckoning us to mindful living. I recently overheard a mother in a grocery store lament to her disgruntled young son, “Life is hard…get used to it.” Well, life can be hard…but it can also be magical. In her book How to Live an Awesome Life, Polly Campbell writes: “There are awesome moments — the kind that cause our jaws to drop, tears to well up, and love and gratitude to pulse through our beings — right there in the middle of the congested, icky ones.”

 

Here are a few simple strategies to cultivate awe and wonder in your life.

  1. Unplug

The distraction of the digital world keeps us from noticing what it right in front of our noses. A few years ago, I was walking on the beach at dawn. This is one of my favorite times of the day: It is a fresh start, filled with possibility. I took a moment and sat on the cool sandy beach to watch as the new day peeked just beyond the horizon. Against the crashing waves, I saw the small fins of the dolphins taking their morning swim along the coast line. It was breathtaking!

I looked around to see if there might be someone who was also witnessing this enchanting scene. However, the scattering of passersby had their heads down, eyes glued to their phones.

 

  1. Practice mindful awareness

Practice becoming fully aware of your surrounding in any situation. Standing in line waiting for coffee? Practice. Stopped at a stop light? Practice. This involves slowing down and engaging all your senses. What do you hear? What do you see? What do you smell? Taste? How does your body feel? The focus shifts from doing to being — and being fully engaged in the moment.

 

  1. Be a creator, not a complainer

Things happen! Icky things happen! Creators look for the bigger picture and try to construct meaning around the situation. This promotes perspective and can diffuse malcontent (a joy-stealer).

 

  1. Show up!

Inspirational people — those who accomplish amazing things in their lives — note that the number one thing they did to change their lives was to simply show up. How often do we dream our dreams, only to dismiss them as impossibilities for any host of reasons? We fear failure — or worse, embarrassment.

My Floridian grandson donned his first pair of ice skates and giggled as he, his mother and his Yaya slipped along the edge of the rink clinging to the rails for safety. We gazed longingly at the people who glided gracefully across the sheet of ice as we scooted and scraped along the outer path. Nonetheless, our efforts were rewarded with my “special” hot cocoa topped with marshmallows, whipped cream and sprinkles. We will never know the wonder of achievement if we don’t take that first step — or slide, as it were.

 

  1. Store up the awesomeness

Create a journal or scrapbook of memories that created a sense of wonder and awe. As a counselor and lifelong storyteller, I enjoy capturing these moments in short essays accompanied by drawings or pictures. I don’t ever want to forget the experience of my daughters’ birth stories, or my daughter taking her wedding vows through tears and laughter, or the moment I stood in front of thousands of people and offered the graduation benediction realizing I was now a doctor, or touched my grandson through the basinet during the unnerving days he stayed in the NICU, or the scent of my beloved dog, Lily, while she took her final breaths.

An awesome life is made up of awesome moments, some joyful while others are filled with sadness. Store them and savor often.

 

  1. Share the wonder

Just as I had the uncanny desire to share that morning at the beach, many awesome moments are meant to be shared. Nicolas seized the snow-filled day and took his family with him as we re-kindled our childhood memories of snow play and crafted more to add to my never-ending collection of essays.

 

Conclusion

During this holiday season take the time to experience awe and wonder. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

We have to look for the wonder, seek the astounding and be open to the beauty, so that we may, like Nicolas, find magic in a simple snowflake.

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is Affiliate Faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. 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.

The Counseling Connoisseur: Eco-culture: Clinical application of nature-informed therapy

By Cheryl Fisher November 27, 2017

“Each of us inherits the story of our people, communities, nations, and it is remembered through, with and in the context of the land and seas, and air, and creatures.” — Kimberly Ruffin

 

Anna, a small-framed 15-year-old Caucasian female, sat engulfed by the overstuffed chair in my office. She looked down, past the floor, to the day her world collapsed. She was walking home from school when three men jumped her, threw her against the huge old oak tree that lay on the outskirts of her family’s farm and proceeded to rape her. They left her against the tree, with torn clothes, battered and forever changed.

After a time (how long Anna could not recall), she walked home to her beloved lakeside farm that was just a quarter-mile from the assault. She described her home as her “safe place” where she was able to “just be myself,” surrounded by her animals, which included horses, dogs, goats and chickens. After finishing her numerous chores around the farm, she would grab a book and take her kayak to the center of the lake, spending hours immersed in the narratives. This had been her haven … until now.

Anna’s mother met her at the door, and Anna collapsed in her arms. The police were called but were unable to make sense of the traumatized youth’s story and unintentionally violated her with their dismissal. She was left feeling ashamed, alone and unlovable. She began isolating herself from her siblings, her friends and even her animals.

 

Eco-cultural sensitivity

According to Dan McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson and Amia Lieblich in their book Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative, identity development is a “process of dialogue between the person and the host culture. The individual appropriates meaning from the culture in the form of important attachments to people, events, valued objects, environments and even orientations to our bodies (i.e., embodied identity).”

The history of humanity is held in the context of the ecosystems in which it takes place. Conflict leaves marks on the earth and with the people and animals who reside in that setting. Although most of us do not rely on cues from the sea or sky to determine our fate or next move, we still rely on the global eco-community to provide food, clean water, medicine and oxygen. Although we are removed, we remain interconnected, and our connection is just as important to our overall well-being as it was centuries ago.

Human development has been described as a biopsychosocialspiritual experience that is a complex interaction of genetics and internal and external environments. Among the external contributors to a person’s growth are family, community and culture (which examines customs, beliefs and values).

However, often excluded from a cultural assessment is the green space and biodiversity experienced by a child. Green space refers to open space, urban spaces such as parks or any natural setting in a person’s regular surroundings. Biodiversity is a term that describes the variety of (and interaction between) life on earth. This information provides a framework to the early interactions among natural settings that inform an individual’s concept of self within a more global context.

As clinicians, we are greatly remiss when we fail to explore a person’s eco-culture. Children learn through early interactions with their environment. According to Stephanie Linden, a special education curriculum specialist at Crofton Elementary School in Maryland, “A child’s first language is not verbal; it is sensory. Children learn to communicate through their senses. Therefore, it is imperative to have an understanding of their routine sensory climate.”

This is especially of interest when considering the variety of environments that may be experienced. A person living in an urban setting may know only of concrete playgrounds with metal benches and pigeons gathering on windowsills. This is different from a person who lives on a farm with goats and horses. Furthermore, consider individuals arriving from other countries who may experience human-animal-plant relationships differently. For example, a child from India (where cows are viewed as sacred) may find a school fieldtrip to a dairy farm to be disturbing. Therefore, assessing for eco-culture demonstrates a level of cultural sensitivity that encompasses a holistic understanding of the person’s worldview.

 

Eco-culture and nature therapy

Ronen Berger, researcher, author and founder of Nature Therapy in Tel Aviv, along with Mooli Lahad, medical psychologist and professor at Tel-Hai College, identified several variables that contribute to overall resiliency. In their BASIC Ph Resiliency Model, Berger and Lahad noted that it is the combination of our Beliefs, Affect, Social Functioning, Imagination, Cognition and Physiology that aid in coping with stressful and traumatic events. However, they found that most clinicians and academics focus on cognitions alone. In addition, the researchers proposed that engaging in nature promotes creativity and aids in physical, emotional, social, cognitive and moral development.

Berger and Lahad concluded, “Nature invites us to make room for the child within, those parts of us that feel, imagine and are present in the experience of playing. Connecting to the cycles of nature can help us bond with parallel processes in our lives and to relate to them in a broad universal context. An encounter with a migrating bird, a dead lizard or a blooming plant can be a stimulus for expressing a similar story within us, of which we were previously ashamed. Sharing the story can normalize it and impart hope. The direct contact with natural elements, the wind, the earth, the plants, can connect us to our body and can awaken the world of images and emotions. Something in the encounter with nature and its powers has the potential to connect us to ourselves; to our strengths and to our coping resources.”

Engaging in the natural eco-culture of the client can provide a deeper, more meaningful healing.

 

Anna’s recovery

Anna’s ability to discuss any aspect of her trauma was enhanced when Max, my therapy dog, joined the sessions. Initially, we would take Max for short walks around the practice neighborhood. On one of those walks, Anna proclaimed her love of kayaking and asked if we might be able to go one day. I had never taken a client kayaking before, and I was unsure of the liability and ethical ramifications. Still, Anna felt strongly that she wanted to go kayaking with me on our nearby creek.

Following consultation with several colleagues, I asked Anna’s mother about the possibility of holding a session on the kayaks. To my surprise, Anna’s mother enthusiastically agreed: “Anna is a very proficient kayaker and a very strong swimmer. I am happy to consent.”

The following week, we met at the area where I keep my kayaks. Anna had brought her own. We put the kayaks in on the sandy shore of the lazy creek and paddled around for a while. Anna had become more animated since we took our sessions outdoors, and she eagerly pressed for us to move out of the calm water to the more challenging adjoining river. I decided that this was indicative of her trust in our relationship — to venture into deeper, more challenging waters.

As we entered the mouth of the river, I remembered the bulkhead that was just around the bend. I had frequently found myself paddling too close and instantly getting sucked into the undertow, which resulted in my kayak being thrust into a head-on collision with a rock barrier. I knew how to release from the undertow, but I was curious how my eager client would view the challenge.

As we paddled into the river, the waters began to churn, splashing in the wake of passing boats. Anna stayed safely in the middle of the river, while I deliberately ventured slightly closer to shore. Sure enough, the current grabbed my kayak and forced me against the rock bed. Anna remained safely beyond the current and was surprised to see me paddling against the waves and rocks. She called out to me, “Stop paddling! Just let the waves take you in … then release.”

I acted as if I had not heard her wisdom and continued to struggle with the current. Finally, Anna yelled, “Stop fighting it, Dr. Cheryl! You have to let it take you in … to release you! You will be fine. Just let go!”

AH! YES! Don’t fight it. Just release it! So, I did …and easily paddled to my very wise (and now frowning) client.

“You knew how to do that all along, didn’t you? You were trying to show me that I need to not fight this thing so much, right?”

She lowered her head and began to cry for the first time. We adjoined our paddles and for the rest of the session sat in silence in the middle of the river.

The weeks that followed were an emotional roller coaster filled with disclosure, tears and healing. At the end of one session, Anna announced, “It is time. It is time to return to the oak tree.” She was ready to return to the place where her violation had occurred. To confront the oak tree that had stood witness. The sessions that followed were characterized by imagery and preparation for Anna’s journey to the location of the assault.

Finally, she was ready. We met at the site of the rape. We got out of the car and slowly walked to the tree — a huge ancient oak whose branches, now bare preparing for the winter rest, stretched out, welcoming Anna. I could never have been prepared for what happened next. Anna ran to the tree, wrapped her arms around its wide girth and began to cry, “Thank you!”

Anna had now slipped to the base of the tree and continued, “Thank you! During everything, you stood with me. You held me up. You never left me!”

Anna’s mother and I just looked at each other in astonishment. Anna was grateful to the oak tree for holding witness to her assault and remaining with her throughout the entire atrocity. Anna’s rape is remembered through, with and in the context of the land and seas, and air, and creatures. She wanted to honor the old oak, so she planted bulbs at its base. In the early spring, Anna returned to find the most beautiful small white flowers peeking up through the late frost … a sign that life can hold beauty even after devastation.

 

Conclusion

Nature provides us with the context of our experiences. It is not separate from, but a container for — a co-journeyer of — our lived experiences. As Berger and Lahad found, “Through the direct contact and connection with nature, people can also touch their own ‘inner’ nature. One can feel authenticity and develop components of personality and important ways of life that might have been hard to express amidst the intensity of modern life.”

As clinicians, we have the ability to facilitate this type of deep healing as we venture into the eco-cultures of our clients and invite them to reconnect with the natural settings of their lives.

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is affiliate faculty for Loyola and Fordham Universities. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer, nature-informed therapy and geek therapy. Contact her at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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