Tag Archives: Resilience

Reintegrating into a changed world amid an ongoing pandemic

By Katie Bascuas January 12, 2022

Samuel Bearer, a licensed professional counselor in St. Louis, remembers hearing a podcast interview back in fall 2020 with sociologist and author Brené Brown in which she described how the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on people’s day-to-day lives had helped many individuals push through the early stages of the crisis, but after several months of pandemic living, people were starting to wear down. 

“When there’s a sense of ‘I’ve been dealing with the unknowns for so long,’ there’s more and more energy it takes to maintain that level of hypervigilance,” Bearer says. “That comes at a high cost.” 

At that point in the pandemic, many counselors began witnessing an increase in anxiety and depression among their clients. Some providers shifted their practice from one that had focused on supporting clients with self-actualization to one that supported clients with learning survival skills. 

“You can’t self-actualize if you don’t have your basic needs met,” says Ashleigh Jackson, a licensed mental health counselor in Melbourne, Florida. “So, if there was a job loss or a partner’s job loss, money and paying bills became the priority.”

Fast-forward 12 months, and the levels of exhaustion and stress felt by many were even higher. The need for further decision-making and risk assessment turned a new corner as people started returning to work and school amid a surge in COVID-19 cases resulting from the delta variant.

As breakthrough cases mounted, dampening some of the initial excitement about the vaccine’s promise to significantly slow the virus’ spread, many people were left to wonder when or if the pandemic would end. Add to that the heated political debates around mask wearing and vaccine mandates, as well as a deluge of negative media coverage, and you get a recipe for increased levels of anxiety, depression and fatigue. 

Counselors were faced with supporting clients as they navigated even more change, with added layers of uncertainty, during this reentry phase. Despite the challenges and the continued strain on many individuals — including counselors themselves — some providers began to identify opportunities for growth, both for clients and the profession.  

Reassessing values around work and home

For some people, the initial reentry phase was an exciting time — a chance to return to old activities and familiar ways of life. But for others, it presented added stress for any number of reasons, including individual health concerns, the complexity of navigating a “new normal” and, for some, the realization that they were now very different from the person they had been 18 months earlier when the pandemic began.

To help clients manage some of the uncertainty around the reentry phase, Bearer says he tried to help clients see the opportunities in the transition. “The reentering is also about ‘Do I want to go back to doing what I was doing, or do I want to make a switch?’” Bearer says. “Anytime we face a crisis like that or we lose a piece of our identity, which might have been part of the work that we did — and all of that might have gone up in the air — there’s a sense of ‘Has this fundamentally changed me or not?’”

Some of those changes might include minor adjustments, such as changes in appearance or office attire. “I’ve seen several clients transition back to work and wonder, ‘Do I have to do my hair again?’” Jackson says. “But you don’t have to do these things. Those were all things that we thought that we had to do, and now we learned that we don’t.”

Some shifts that people were experiencing were more significant, however, such as deciding whether they wanted to return to working in an office setting or whether they even wanted to keep their jobs. Both Jackson and Bearer say that being a sounding board for clients to explore alternative work or employment scenarios became an important part of their work. Bearer also used the opportunity to help clients assess their values around work. 

For example, Bearer found that for various clients, 18 months of teleworking had different effects on their work-life balance. Whereas some found the extra time valuable to devote to personal or family needs, others struggled with delineating their work and home lives and subsequently felt overwhelmed. 

“To whatever degree that we have been affected by the pandemic, there may be moments that we come to where we can clarify for ourselves, to say, ‘Hey, if I’m feeling the tension between the value of work and the value of home, how do I clarify that for myself?’” Bearer says. “It’s normal that we fluctuate through life, but now we are learning more how to recognize which stage we’re in and what we need to prioritize.” 

Bearer hopes that as more people reenter the workplace or return to pre-pandemic commitments, they get the opportunity to identify a new balance among all of their responsibilities, whether that’s at work, school, home or with family. He encourages people, where possible, to recognize this as an opportunity not to default to the broader culture, but rather to make individual choices that better resonate with their unique goals and lifestyles.

Halfpoint/Shutterstock.com

More people taking risks

In addition to decisions around work and how to return to an office or workplace, Jackson says she has noticed more clients taking large leaps of faith and making significant life changes as things began to open up more. “People are learning that life is short and everything can be gone in a moment,” she says, “so some are taking drastic risks, moving across the country, ending relationships, ending careers.”

The combination of those life changes with the physical reentry process can be a lot to manage at one time, adds Jackson, who compared the reentry phase during COVID-19 to reentering the world post-divorce or after the loss of a loved one. “We’re not the same,” she says. “But we have to figure out ‘Who am I now?’ integrating everything that’s happened, and then determine ‘How do I show up?’” 

Jackson says that encouraging clients to reintegrate slowly and giving clients “permission” to not be awesome at reintegrating right away was helpful in her work with individuals feeling tension around the reentry process. She also helped to normalize clients’ fears and concerns, taught grounding and mindfulness strategies, and recommended that clients take advantage of collective resources, such as meditation and breathing apps. 

Managing added stimuli

Those techniques are also helpful when dealing with the overstimulation that can come with reentry, says Emily McNeil, an LPC who owns the Mariposa Center for Infant, Child and Family Enrichment in Denver.

“Meeting all the demands of work and family and extracurriculars … it’s a trigger for a lot of depression and anxiety because people went from very low stimulation, in a lot of ways, to incredible stress and more demands, on top of the fact that we’re not out of the pandemic,” McNeil says. She incorporated a healthy dose of mindfulness, breathing and somatic techniques to help clients focus on the present moment and encourage them to take one day at a time. 

McNeil and other clinicians in her practice also began referring clients to other providers, including acupuncturists, psychiatrists, massage therapists and craniosacral therapists. Given that she primarily works with children, McNeil and her colleagues also found themselves reaching out to schools more frequently. “We’ve been creating community with schools to make sure that the schools and the family and the community-based providers are all on the same page with how to support children who might be struggling,” she says. “So, our amount of case management at this time is really high.”

Not only are people being barraged with added stimuli from the physical reentry process, but many are also feeling overwhelmed with the noise coming from the media.

“It seems like we’re constantly being bombarded with breaking news and information and opinions right and left, and this can often take us out of the present space and into a pseudo reality,” says Kristin Prichard, an LPC in Houston. “Then you compound that with a novel worldwide pandemic and the restrictions and lockdowns, and it can cause our brains to go into survival mode and trigger a recurrent fight-or-flight response.”

Prichard also noticed that some clients began to create rigid opinions or reactions to try and compensate for and feel safer amid the influx of information and differing opinions. “They want to go to an extreme and say, ‘I’ve weighed it, this is my decision, and I’m not going to waiver from it,’” Prichard observes. “It’s like a protection mechanism.” 

To help clients manage this type of fixed thinking, Prichard says she tries to meet clients where they are and model flexibility. “Something that I’ve tried to help individuals navigate in therapy is being more open-minded and taking in that information, but finding a way to process it before just automatically going to an answer,” she says. “[It’s about] exploring options.” 

Encouraging flexibility was helpful when supporting clients as they navigated interpersonal relationships at a time when more people were gathering but not everyone was on the same page about risk and safety precautions. Prichard urged clients to have an open dialogue, as much as possible, with those they were involved with. “The best thing to move forward is to recognize that nothing is set in stone, and you really need to have open communication with others and have patience and a general level of respect,” she says.

Recognizing resilience

Despite the increase in mental health disorders and the challenges centered on navigating a new normal, another theme that many counselors noticed as the pandemic wore on was a rise in demand for therapy services. This can be interpreted as a sign of resilience, according to some providers.

“While at times it is difficult to navigate, and there are lots of challenges and setbacks as we progress and then take a step back and then progress forward, overall I’ve recognized that more people are reaching out for help,” Prichard says. “You’re seeing the resiliency of individuals and people wanting to reach out for support.”

The reentry phase provided yet another pivot point — or opportunity, depending on how you look at it — to help reframe people’s mindsets from one of discouragement and frustration to one of strength and adaptability.

“There are so many times when I’ve felt, and when I’ve heard from colleagues, clients and supervisees, that I can’t take one more thing, and then there is [one more thing], and people keep going,” McNeil says. “They figure it out.” 

McNeil began using examples of people’s resilience to help validate their strengths. “A lot of people who are coming to counseling say things like ‘I’m broken,’ and I never agree with that, but this has been an opportunity for people to look within themselves and see all the things that they continued to do over the last year and a half and hold the mirror up and say, ‘Actually, you’re not broken. Look at how resilient you are even as hard as this has been. You’ve gotten through it, or at least to this point.’”

While counselors were helping clients recognize their personal resilience in the face of one more hurdle, many professionals were also recognizing their own limits and fatigue. Thus, a potential side effect, or benefit, of the pandemic’s longevity was the realization among some counselors of the need for greater personal and professional well-being to ensure effective and sustained practice.

“I’m a huge proponent and advocate for therapists having their own therapy,” says Jackson, who realized a greater need to engage in personal therapy during the pandemic. “Everyone was in crisis, as opposed to a few [clients] every week, so I had to enlist my own support to process how this was all affecting me.”

In addition to therapy, some counselors found themselves reaching out more to colleagues and others in the field who were facing similar experiences. 

“I think it is really helpful to build a community of support,” McNeil says. “So, having colleagues who have your back, whether you work with them or whether they’re peers who you get coffee with or connect over Zoom with. [Having] other people who really get what you do and can share notes with you about what it’s like to work in a virtual world when we’re a relational profession.”

A new balance?

The reentry phase also presented an opportunity to assess the value of teletherapy, which became a necessity in the early stages of the pandemic but less imperative once the vaccine became widely available.

“At first I, as well as some of my colleagues, were leery of telehealth,” Prichard says. She explains that the fear of losing a sense of physical presence and connection with her clients, as well as the potential difficulty of picking up on clients’ nonverbal cues, initially made her question the effectiveness of teletherapy. However, after several months of providing virtual services to clients, Prichard says she came to respect the benefits that telehealth provides. 

“What it does offer is a sense of calmness or peace for the client to know that at any time, they can check in for a therapy session from wherever they are, and they can do it in their own space, feeling comfortable, and they don’t have to deal with all the stressors and ins and outs of going into a session like traffic and parking,” Prichard says. “From that standpoint, I think it’s been a unique but rewarding thing to realize that we can provide good service care in different forms than we first recognized.”

While there are very real benefits to teletherapy, in-person therapy continues to have its benefits as well. So, what will the future delivery model for professional counselors look like? Maybe a mix of both. 

“You can move forward with the new technology and a new way of doing things while still respecting other ways that you’ve done things before and finding a balance between the two,” Prichard says. 

This balanced approach may also present the opportunity to serve more clients, especially if licensure portability can keep track with the technology, Jackson adds. (To learn more about the Counseling Compact effort that the American Counseling Association is supporting, visit counselingcompact.org.)

“I am encouraged that the pandemic has brought a lot of counselors to virtual,” Jackson says. “It has increased accessibility for so many people who otherwise would not get therapy, and I’m really hopeful that this will carry over into more portability for us so that we can see people in different places. We will be dealing with the effects of this for a really long time, so we need to be able to help as many people as we can in the ways that are ethical.”

 

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Katie Bascuas is a licensed graduate professional counselor and a writer in Washington, D.C. She has written for news outlets, universities and associations.

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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.

What discomfort can teach you

By Shari Gootter and Tejpal June 16, 2021

Comfort is something we all seek. The notion of “being comfortable” is highly prized (and promoted) in our society. It is considered a major selling point if you are in the market to buy a bed, clothes, a car, a pair of shoes — almost anything. But the overvaluing of comfort in our lives can come at great cost.

Fizkes/Shutterstock.com

Our relationship with comfort and discomfort is influenced by our culture, our personal history and our personality. If we are born in a tradition in which failure is not an option and social success is the norm, we may challenge ourselves with long hours of work or study to avoid the discomfort of failure. If we are born into a family where depression or anger was part of the daily landscape, we may want to avoid these emotions at any price and dissociate when these feelings arise. Taking a deeper look at our relationship with comfort and discomfort provides us insight on our path toward acceptance and happiness.

Discomfort exists at many levels:

  • At the physical level, it may manifest as a headache, a digestive issue or a skin irritation.
  • At the emotional level, it may manifest as anxiety, worry or depression.
  • At the mental level, it may manifest as constant agitation, an inability to focus or ambivalence in decision-making.
  • At the heart level, it may manifest while experiencing loss, change or separation.
  • At the spiritual level, it may manifest as existential angst, lack of purpose or a feeling of disconnection.

Certain life events can be challenging and unfamiliar. If we are clinging to any form of comfort, we will limit our ability to adapt and grow. Through the years, the overpromotion of comfort, happiness and pleasure has created tremendous distortions. There is no tolerance for any amount of discomfort and tremendous impatience for any kind of pain. When comfort is the only choice, resilience and the ability to overcome adversity are lost.

Running from discomfort

If you want to stay centered and at peace, you need to stop running away from discomfort (or always running toward pleasure). Running from discomfort prevents us from being able to see and feel what is present. It holds us in a false state of reality and never allows us to know our true selves. On the other hand, being uncomfortable teaches us to transcend pain and pleasure, thus allowing us to be true to ourselves. It also allows us to see clearly when challenges occur.

The constant promotion of pleasure and comfort has contributed to the emergence of addictive behaviors. For example, many individuals use food, medication or gaming as a way to soothe their pain or “escape” their stress. This starts with a tremendous obsession of the mind that makes us believe there is only one way. When our mind gets frantic about one thing, there is no room for anything else and our behavior becomes extremely reactive. As soon as we grasp for more comfort, we become intoxicated. Intoxication does not necessarily have to involve a substance such as alcohol. We can be intoxicated with power or greed. As soon as we are intoxicated, we lose our intelligence and our ability to be present.

When you experience discomfort, we suggest that you stay away from labeling it, contracting and wondering when the pain will go away. None of us came to Earth to suffer, but none of us came to earth to run away from suffering either. Every time that you hit your limitations, you have the opportunity to unfold and open.

Mara, one of our clients, was struggling with tremendous discomfort. She was never satisfied with herself and experienced ongoing anxiety about her future. She dealt with her pain by consuming alcohol. After several years of doing this, Mara was no longer able to follow through with much of anything, and she ended up getting fired from her job. This was a much-needed wake-up call for Mara to realize that she needed help. When she first came to see us, she had a strong motivation to rid herself of her discomfort. But as she learned to develop a sense of compassion for herself, she grew more able to embrace her discomfort. Mara came to understand that when she was trying to cover up her discomfort, she was actually opening the door to self-destruction.

Accepting discomfort

Accepting our discomfort is led not only by bravery but by our heart center. At that moment, we choose to accept who we are. Our will does not help to heal our pain; our heart does. For Mara, getting fired was the saving grace. Others may go deeper into negative coping mechanisms that further enhance patterns of self-sabotage before determining to change their relationship with discomfort.

Often, when we experience discomfort, we perceive it as a threat. We want to separate from our discomfort to protect ourselves. When we do this, we create the opposite of what we are looking for. The more we separate from our discomfort, the more we separate from ourselves, and the more pain we experience as a result.

Underneath any discomfort, there is a fear. For some it could be the fear of missing out. For others it may be the fear of not being in control, or the fear of being overwhelmed and losing sense of self.

The longer we numb our discomfort, the more stuck we may feel. The longer we reject our discomfort, the louder our ego becomes. The practice of allowing discomfort is the practice of integration. Integration occurs when we allow our behavioral patterns, traits, emotional states and experiences to come together in a more unified and organized state. Without integration there is separation, and with separation there is distortion.

The purpose of pain is to awaken the heart, not trigger the mind. It is not about overcoming pain; it is about recognizing and being willing to learn from it.

Some spiritual traditions will bring discomfort to the core of their practice. The intent is to teach the practitioner to stay whole while in pain and to prevent the mind, led by the ego, from directing the experience. The focus is not on overcoming pain but rather on surrendering and allowing the experience of pain to expand where it wants to be. It teaches the mind not to separate but to allow. It teaches the mind to go beyond subject-object relationship. At that moment, there is an alchemy happening in the body, and one may shift from pain to bliss because the mind is not locked into form.

The practice of being uncomfortable

Regardless of your spiritual tradition and belief system, meditation is a great way to learn to be still with discomfort. Many people express difficulties when trying to learn to meditate and often give up, believing they are not good at it. The purpose of meditation is not to add pleasure or pain but rather to develop a neutral mind that allows whatever arises. Consistency in a meditation practice paves the way for acceptance and humility, which are two beautiful qualities of the heart.

If you are able to stay still during pain, without hoping for pleasure to come, you are free. If instead of fighting against the pain, you welcome it fully, you will shift and heal. When this happens, you will realize that pain and pleasure are not opposites, but simply sensations; you are now living beyond polarities.

Being uncomfortable does not always relate to pain or pleasure; our own fears and limitations can create great discomfort. To avoid discomfort, we may prevent ourselves from taking risks and put our self-development on hold. Some may feel stuck and have pushed the pause button, whereas others might operate on autopilot by staying with their to-do list. For example, some people may stay in a relationship or job even though they know it is no longer serving them. Both are forms of avoidance.

As we learn to allow pain to be part of our experience, we need to notice other possible scenarios that prevent us from learning about our discomfort. The first scenario is to be attached to our pain, allowing it to become our identity. At that moment, our life revolves around our pain, and this limits our ability to heal and make positive changes. The second scenario is to be uncomfortable with others’ discomfort. This steers us toward being “people pleasers,” constantly focusing on others’ well-being and avoiding being in touch with ourselves. Related to this second scenario, it can also be challenging to be around someone we deeply care for who is experiencing a great deal of discomfort. We may want to “fix it” or change it as a sign of love.

The practice of being uncomfortable teaches us to stay connected with ourselves, to be curious and open. It teaches us to be relaxed and surrender into the discomfort. The more we want to control our discomfort, the more stuck we become.

Allow discomfort to be part of your experience. Welcome it fully from the heart center. At the core of your pain or fear, you will grow and you will learn.

Practices

To become comfortable with the uncomfortable, we invite you to try the following practices. As with every practice, consistency and repetition are key to gaining insights and creating change.

Practicing in itself can create discomfort. It is when you are the least inclined to practice that it may be the most beneficial. Practice teaches you to go beyond your emotional reactivity. As you keep showing up for yourself, it will get easier.

Meditation Tonglen

Tonglen is a meditation practice found in Tibetan Buddhism and used to awaken compassion. Through acknowledging our own and others’ suffering, we open our hearts.

  • Sit in a comfortable position. Lengthen your spine and draw your shoulders down your back. Soften your face and jaw. Close your eyes.
  • Connect to one part of you that is in pain at a physical, emotional, mental, heart or spiritual level.
  • Notice the quality of your pain.
  • Imagine all of the people with a similar experience and inhale their pain. Do not be afraid to “inhale” others’ pain. You will not get more pain. In fact, you may feel some relief.
  • Exhale; send relief.
  • Repeat the process for at least three minutes.

Journaling

Some of you may be really reluctant to start this practice and others may simply love it. The benefits of journaling are priceless. It helps you process emotions or situations with more awareness and clarity. It is a safe container to express your voice. Research on journal writing therapy indicates positive outcomes related to identifying emotions and feelings and reducing stress. It can be a catalyst for change and healing.

  • Think of something that makes you uncomfortable. Is this new or old? What are the main emotions you are experiencing? What behaviors or strategies have you implemented? What did you learn about yourself?

Take action

Taking action is where the true learning takes place. You get an opportunity to truly assess your relationship with discomfort and stretch yourself.

  • Do something outside of your comfort zone.

 

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This article is based on a chapter from our book WAY TO BE – 40 Insights and Transformative Practices in The Heart of Being. For more information, go to www.40waystobe.com.

 

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Shari Gootter is a licensed professional counselor and certified rehabilitation counselor with decades of experience in designing and leading workshops for diverse populations. Her focus has been on helping people shift while going through losses or adjustments. She has also created programs for counselors that assist them in developing a framework that supports lasting transformation. Shari is a therapist in private practice and has taught yoga for decades. Contact her at sharigootter@comcast.net.

Tejpal has over 30 years of experience supporting individuals on their journey toward healing, life purpose and real joy. Tejpal blends her intuition, energy healing, creative processes, life coaching and yoga into her work. Tejpal was born in France and moved to the U.S. 25 years ago. She has worked with people from many cultures and traditions.

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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.

Reformulating client well-being during an economic crisis

By Scott Gleeson July 13, 2020

Various forms of the same headline say it all: “The worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression.”

The U.S. Labor Department declared back in early May that 20.5 million people had abruptly lost their jobs as many businesses shut down or significantly altered their workforce operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

For mental health counselors, the COVID-19 crisis has prompted a plethora of alterations in conjunction with health-risk anxiety — from a major uptick in telehealth services to exacerbated symptoms for clients working from home extensively for the first time in their lives.

But what about adding the loss of a job or reduced wages on top of everything else? Quarantining takes on new meaning when a career is significantly throttled. The current unemployment rate is nearly double what it was during the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

“If you think about the college graduates of 2008, they’ve been in the workforce for a decade now, and they’re experiencing another major recession,” says Clewiston Challenger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut. “This time, there could be a longer lasting effect on the job market. Your job is a major source of identity, so therapists can play a serious role in [helping clients find] that temporary identity without work.”

Clients also may have to adjust their mental health treatments based on changing insurance coverage from a lost job, and clinicians could find themselves adjusting their rates to accommodate financial burdens.

Of course, working clients have felt emotionally compromised too.

Ingrid Erickson, a licensed professional counselor and member of the American Counseling Association, works as a career counselor for Heritage Professional Associates in Chicago and as a leadership coach for BetterUp, a training firm that helps employees and companies bolster their work fulfillment and culture. She has noticed a common trend in which still-employed clients have felt an extra emotional weight over the past several months. As such, her therapeutic approach has been adjusted into “a mini treatment plan in the context of a larger one” — a compartmentalized plan with a sharpened focus on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting each client, and then a broader scope that contains the client’s overriding goals pre-COVID.

“A common theme is that people have been running [over] capacity,” Erickson says. “Work provides a rhythm to our lives, and for some that normalcy was taken away amidst all the uncertainty of COVID. It’s created a situation where a lot of people who are working are pretty maxed out. There’s a lot of fear, and it can be difficult constantly trying to figure out what the new normal looks like. Emotionally, cognitively, it can be really draining.

“With a lot of clients, we’ve had a mini reassessment because COVID is uniquely impacting each person in different ways, whether it’s job insecurity, high-risk loved ones, interpersonal by living in tighter quarters … It’s important to take a step back and see how the added stress is playing a role in maybe bringing a lot of things to the [emotional] surface that normal life doesn’t. I find it helpful to acknowledge how the stress affects our work life. There’s this expectation of doing our lives as normal. Well, it’s not normal right now. We’re needing patience and compassion for ourselves.”

One way that normalcy can be hindered is in clients’ bank accounts. Gideon Litherland, a licensed clinical professional counselor at Veduta Consulting in Chicago and a Ph.D. candidate at Oregon State University researching supervision effectiveness, says broaching financial concerns with clients can become necessary, even if they are avoidant of such topics.

“This is the worst economic recession since the Great Depression,” Litherland says. “We can’t ignore or not talk about what clients may very well want to ignore. If the client does not want to tend to them, what are the fears in attending to those feelings? It becomes appropriate to say, ‘Hey, things are going on economically. How is this affecting you financially?’ It is clinically relevant to check in with a client about financial stress for their mental well-being. The experiences can be ‘Where’s my next paycheck coming from? Where could I live if I get kicked out of my apartment? What happens if I declare for bankruptcy?’ It’s entirely within our role and purview as clinicians to tend to a client’s basic needs, and [financial concerns] fall under that.”

Erickson says mindsets are different for every individual based on where their career trajectory was at before the coronavirus pandemic. She adds that the past several months have greatly influenced quarter-life and midlife assessments in reverse directions based on where clients were at in their identity development.

“The market is not great right now and very unpredictable, so a lot of people who were going through a job search put actively looking on the shelf for now,” she says. “Then there might be others who almost see this breaking period, whether furloughed or laid off or working from home, as an opportunity to rethink what they want their careers to look like. There’s a freedom to really reassess with creative thinking and problem-solving. When we do career thinking on a shot clock, we don’t do our best.”

A recent Wall Street Journal report found that the worst of the coronavirus shutdowns may be over. The uptick of air travel, hotel bookings and mortgage applications could signal a turn for the better economically in the U.S. However, those improvements could be tied to temporary factors, with emergency spending from Congress among key reasons for more temporary spending.

Erickson says that looking ahead to brighter days, while necessary, can be a double-edged sword. One thing she is coaching her clients with is the premise of separating short-term goals and emotions from long-term goals and emotions.

“Long-term hope and optimism with a vision for the future can be an anchor during times of stress,” she says. “Planning for the future has a value, but at the same time, fear and anxiety for the future can paralyze, so we run the risk of getting stuck worrying and rehashing over and over to where we’re emotionally suffering based on something that hasn’t actually even happened.

“I’ve found it can be helpful to shorten the time frames to avoid the emotional flooding and just … focus on making it through the next day and week. If you’re a small business owner, instead of asking, ‘How do I help my business survive?’ then focusing on immediate issues, what’s within your immediate control and then coming back later to focus on the months ahead.”

The gradual reopening of states also means that people who were working from home will be thrust back into their old routines and structures, albeit with a renewed outlook.

“There have been a lot of positives that have come from being away from the day-to-day,” Challenger says. “For many people who see their job as their identity, perhaps this crisis gave them a chance to focus on other facets of their life and look outside of their identities as employees. And now more than ever, companies are more comfortable with distance communication, so we might see some of these industries morphing into more Zoom meetings and working from home.”

Even as some people appear set for a return to normalcy in the short term, others are likely to experience lingering impacts from the economic crisis. For instance, college graduates who were poised to enter their respective professions after earning their degrees have instead been greeted by closed doors and blocked opportunities because of the coronavirus.

“COVID happened so abruptly,” Challenger says, “and now all of the sudden companies aren’t in a position to spend money anymore. So, that job a college graduate might’ve wanted is gone.”

In the long run though, Challenger adds, “The class of 2020 will be built on resilience.”

That notion of resiliency and a bounce-back effect is where Erickson sees the silver lining.

“Resiliency isn’t built in times where it’s easy,” she says. “We’ve been forced to live our lives without resources in ways we never had before. If anything, hopefully these times can show that we can make it and shows us what we can do.”

 

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Related reading

See Counseling Today‘s August magazine for an in-depth feature on helping 2020 graduates navigate life after college amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Scott Gleeson is a licensed professional counselor at DG Counseling in Downers Grove, Illinois, and Chicago. Contact him at scottmgleeson@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.

For such a time as this: A plan of action for moving forward

By Esther Scott June 30, 2020

[Editor’s note: This is the fourth article in a series on action plans for different areas of life during the COVID-19 pandemic.]

During this period of physical distancing, a new norm of limiting touch was created. Although touches are often few and brief in American culture compared with other cultures, these brief touches contribute greatly to our emotional well-being. Many have missed the small touches of friends and family that connected them at a deeper level, or the social courtesy of a handshake during introductions.

Social distancing, although necessary, has been a big challenge. But after a period of quarantine and isolation from friends and family, perhaps a bigger challenge will be returning to normal interactions of touching one another without fear and anxiety. There are mixed emotions involved. Some people are feeling relief and gratitude as restrictions are gradually loosened, while others are experiencing frustration with the “new norm” or are fearful that others could still infect them with the virus.

Whichever side you come out on, it is important to remember that touch creates a human bond that is particularly necessary for building a healthy, more connected community. Studies show that we need to touch and be touched. Human touch is vital for well-being. It leads to the release of oxytocin, also called the “love hormone,” which helps regulate your fight-or-flight system and calms your body in times of stress.

Studies also show that lack of touch can be harmful to health. In experiments with monkeys, researcher Harry Harlow demonstrated that young monkeys deprived of touch did not grow and develop normally. We must now work at getting back to where we can touch each other without anxiety or doubt.

In the meantime, learning to express warmth and affection through words will help us move forward. Here is a plan of action for that.

Images from the United Nations COVID-19 Response page at unsplash.com

1) Focus on the future.

Every storm passes. And this too shall pass. After a period of quarantine or isolation, you may feel emotions that include relief and gratitude, or even feelings of personal growth and increased spirituality. Just as fear was once spread, hope and security can be transmitted socially too.

Looking at crises as opportunities to rethink and reorganize our priorities will prove beneficial. Crises bring opportunities for improvements that are not always possible in other conditions. The analogy of a diamond may apply here. The beauty of the diamond comes about from the extreme experience of pressure and heat. The same is true for us. We will emerge stronger from this situation and the complex challenges we have faced and are still facing. Let’s focus on a future that is filled with hope.

2) Prioritize your mental health and be flexible.

Things may get worse before they get better, but we are still here. Human beings have great capacity for adapting in times of suffering.

Prioritizing your mental health can be one of the best steps you can take at this time. For many, this will mean continuing to see their therapists or booking online sessions to talk through things and being intentional about practicing self-care.

Feeling anxious as we reintegrate as a society will be normal, but if you experience symptoms of extreme stress such as constant sleep problems or an increase in alcohol or drug use, a visit to your health care provider or mental health professional can make a positive difference. Mental health is essential to everyone’s overall health and well-being, especially during difficult times. Focus your attention on your strengths and abilities, and imagine yourself coping and adapting successfully.

Flexibility is adaptive. It is imperative that we build a foundation of healthy coping and stay connected to our values and to one another. Gratitude is a good first step toward opening the door to flexibility. In fact, the more you practice gratitude, the better your brain gets at recognizing positive things.

Start by thinking about one thing or person for which you are grateful. Focus on the feelings that arise, and hold them in your heart. Know that you can return to that thought of appreciation anytime as you move forward.

3) Be optimistic and resilient.

Optimism is the tendency to see and judge things in their most positive or favorable outcome. Resilience is our ability to overcome difficult circumstances and grow in the face of adversity. These qualities will be key in our efforts to recover. When we are anxious, we tend to overestimate and exaggerate the impact of a negative event and underestimate our chances of recovery. Resiliency gives us a realistic balance.

The ability to handle adversity will be another critical component to our success moving forward. Even if you or someone you love has been diagnosed with the coronavirus, maintaining an optimistic attitude is essential to supporting recovery. Being optimistic will help you make your thoughts and emotions much more positive, which in turn gives your immune system a boost.

The experience of the coronavirus does not have to become a traumatic and overwhelming experience that marks us for life. On the contrary, it can be an excellent opportunity to exercise our resilience — that is, to grow in the face of adversity.

Religious individuals involved in tragic circumstances often report finding peace, hope and even increased faith in the midst of the experience. Consequently, they tend to report high satisfaction in their lives. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed … Struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:9).

We can all benefit from this kind of optimism. Therefore, let us start filling our world with music and songs of hope in preparation for the great celebration that awaits us. We will meet again. We will celebrate again. Let’s get started.

 

 

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Esther Scott, LPC

Esther Scott is a licensed professional counselor in Arlington, Texas. She is a solution-focused therapist. Her specialties include grief, depression, teaching coping skills and couples counseling. Contact her through her website at positiveactionsinternational.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.

Coping with the (ongoing) stress of COVID-19

By Lindsey Phillips May 21, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting everyone differently. Some are coping with the loss of a job. Some are risking their lives caring for those who are sick. And others find themselves deeply contemplating existential questions of mortality and the meaning of life.

The pandemic could also be compounding underlying mental health issues for some clients, notes Robert Haynes, a member of the American Counseling Association. For instance, clients who were already battling depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder may now be dealing with a significant amount of anxiety and stress on top of that related to COVID-19. Those confronted with social injustices because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability may also be more affected, he adds.

“People are going to be all over the spectrum as far as how they’re doing, what they’re doing and how it’s affecting them,” Haynes says. “Don’t assume anything, even if you’ve been working with a client for some time. This [pandemic] may be a huge setback for them.”

Many people have not dealt with this level of stress before, and some are having newfound anxieties, which can be jarring, says Shainna Ali, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in Orlando, Florida. The pandemic may also uncover an unaddressed mental health concern that could benefit from counseling, she adds.

Coping with uncertainty

People’s ability to cope with stressful events has been and will continue to be tested by the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time when mental health is moving to the forefront of the public’s consciousness, professional clinical counselors are in a prime position to help clients cope with uncertainty and loss, build resilience, adjust their coping strategies and self-care routines, and identify their individual and community strengths. And counselors, of course, can best help their clients by remembering to also take care of themselves during this challenging time.

Uncertainty surrounds this global crisis. No one is quite sure what to expect or what the next day will hold. The uncertainty, fear and unknown with COVID-19 creates the perfect formula for anxiety, says Haynes, co-author, with Michelle Muratori, of the recently published ACA book Coping Skills for a Stressful World: A Workbook for Counselors and Clients.

A common response to this uncertainty is trying to seek control, Ali says. Throughout this pandemic, Ali, owner of Integrated Counseling Solutions, has constantly been reminding clients, “Manage what you can. Release what you can’t.” Fixating on what you can’t control leads only to rumination, but focusing on what you can manage is one way of coping with a stressful situation, she says.

For example, an adult client might worry about their parents and how well they are isolating during the pandemic. The client may want to visit their parents but also fear making them sick. Ali would advise this client to find another way to check on them (one that aligns with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines) such as calling or doing a video chat.

“Focusing on what we can control might help us to feel more grounded,” says Muratori, a senior counselor at the Center for Talented Youth and a faculty associate in the school of education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Counselors can help clients set small, achievable goals and take time to reflect on what they have accomplished each day. For example, clients can ask themselves, “What is one thing I can do today to move toward accomplishing my goals?”

People can also control the type and amount of information they consume. As Stephanie Dailey, an assistant professor of counseling at George Mason University, points out, overexposure to media tends to increase people’s levels of distress, fear and anxiety during disaster situations, regardless of whether they were involved in the crisis.

“Accurate and timely information is important,” says Dailey, a licensed professional counselor in Virginia. “But if a client is constantly on social media and is accessing sensationalized or erroneous information, it’s going to undermine their mental health.” She advises counselors to inquire about how much access (or overaccess) to information clients might have.

Coping with loss

Not all loss is obvious. A couple mourn the cancellation of their vacation plans. A high school senior is upset because he won’t be able to experience graduation with his friends. A young child misses her first Broadway show. Neighbors are no longer able to relax and celebrate the end of a workweek by having dinner with one another in their homes on Friday night. Baseball fans lament the start of the season being postponed.

Loss is upsetting because it highlights what we no longer have or what we could have had, explains Ali, a member of ACA. She helps clients more fully understand what they are truly mourning and validates their appropriate emotional responses to the loss, such as sadness, anger and frustration. But she also helps clients see possibilities for experiencing gratitude even in the midst of loss.

For example, if a client is upset about not being able to get married when originally planned, Ali first reassures the client that feeling that way is OK. She may then ask the client to think about something for which they are grateful. The client may respond, “I still have my partner.”

Ali, author of The Self-Love Workbook and the blog A Modern Mentality (hosted by Psychology Today), finds gratitude a particularly valuable coping skill currently because “right now, it’s really easy to get distracted by the negative.” Encouraging clients to be grateful and to look for the positive isn’t meant to undermine or minimize negative emotions, she asserts. Rather, it deters clients from ruminating on the negative. 

Ali might also ask the client upset about their postponed wedding, “How can you still honor what you have?” This question would help the client refocus their energy on what can be managed (such as revising their wedding plans or planning an at-home date night) rather than wrestling with what is beyond their control, she explains.

Building resilience

Haynes and Muratori say that resilience is one of the key components of being able to cope with stressful events. Some people incorrectly assume that resilience is innate, but it can be learned, asserts Haynes, a clinical psychologist and producer of psychology video programs for Borderline Productions. “Resilience is more what you do than it is who you are,” he explains. And like any other skill, it grows stronger with practice.

Counseling techniques that help clients connect with others, adjust their thinking and beliefs, become more optimistic and flexible, practice self-care, attend to the spiritual dimension of life or promote self-compassion can bolster resilience, Haynes says.

In Coping Skills for a Stressful World, Haynes and Muratori share an exercise for strengthening client resilience. It involves clients tracking their reactions to stressful events for a period of two weeks and asking themselves some questions: What did they feel and think about the situation? What actions did they take to resolve the crisis? How effective were those actions? What did they learn? The exercise encourages clients to consider their own strengths and the ways they already cope with stressors. Clients come to the realization that they can use these same tools that they already possess when facing future crises, Haynes and Muratori explain. (The use of out-of-session exercises and activities such as this one is a major focus of their workbook.)

Ali works with clients to create their own toolkits of general self-care and coping skills that may be helpful during difficult times. It is important that people establish a general self-care practice rather than waiting to focus on coping skills during a crisis, Ali notes. She says that everyone’s coping skills during a stressful event will look different, but she advises clients (and counselors) to break into their “emergency coping kit” and find activities that help them manage stress.

Dailey, an ACA member who specializes in disaster mental health, finds ways to tap into her clients’ strengths to promote resilience and coping. If a client enjoys art, for example, Dailey may recommend painting or drawing as a possible coping tool. If a client is a natural helper, Dailey might have them brainstorm ways they could support others during the COVID-19 crisis, such as making masks or volunteering virtually. Spiritual or religious practices also provide an enormous amount of strength for some clients, she adds.

“Communities and individuals are innately resilient,” says Dailey, co-author of the 2014 article “Shelter-in-place and mental health: An analogue study of well-being and distress” for the Journal of Emergency Management. “Everyone has strengths, and this crisis can be an opportunity to find those strengths.”

As Muratori, an ACA member, points out, learning coping skills and resilience is not just something that will help clients get through the current COVID-19 crisis. It will also prepare them for future crises, large or small.

Adjusting coping and self-care strategies

“One of the skills in being resilient is also having some flexibility,” Muratori says. That is particularly relevant now because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people to constantly shift and reshift their schedules while also creating new routines.

It is natural for people going through challenging times to engage in rigid thinking such as “I can’t stand this,” Muratori says. She advises counselors to remind clients that they are standing this; they are adapting and adjusting.

Many of Ali’s clients thrive with routine, but those routines have repeatedly been disrupted by physical distancing, quarantine and gradual reentry. Some of her clients were used to having a clear distinction between their home lives and work lives, so being forced to work from home has created new challenges for them around establishing and maintaining boundaries.

Ali works with these clients to recognize their personal boundaries and to establish some sort of new routine for themselves. She encourages clients to use a semistructured routine, in which they set their intentions for the day but also remain flexible to accommodate new circumstances as they arise.

Dailey also advises clients to maintain a regular routine as much as possible. She encourages them to focus on the basics, such as waking up, showering, eating and going to bed at the usual times.

Ali says that social connectivity remains an important coping strategy during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Social distancing and social isolation are not the same,” she emphasizes. Ali advises clients to think of creative ways to continue meeting their social needs. For example, if clients previously coped with a stressful workweek by going out to dinner with friends, perhaps they could consider hosting a virtual dinner party.

Likewise, clients may need to adjust their self-care regimens right now. After first defining self-care, Ali says, counselors can help clients brainstorm self-care techniques that have worked for them in the past and then look at how they can adapt those strategies (if necessary) to work in an environment of physical distancing or gradual reentry. For example, if a client previously coped with stress by going to the gym, how could they still fulfill that need while gyms are closed? Could they take a remote fitness class or go for a run instead? (For more on this topic, read Ali’s ACA blog post “Self-care & social distancing: Helping clients adjust during COVID-19” at tinyurl.com/ACAMemberBlogAli.)

“Any tools that will support relaxation are really critical at this time,” Dailey emphasizes. She finds mindfulness an effective technique for helping clients regulate their emotions because it encourages them to pause for a moment and let their bodies catch up with their brains. In turn, emotion regulation helps clients successfully manage their symptoms, maintain focus for day-to-day problem-solving and attend to physical needs such as eating, sleeping and taking the proper medications, Dailey says. Clients can journal, go for walks, spend time outside, exercise, meditate, do breathing exercises or do grounding exercises to manage their anxiety, she adds.

Counselors can also play a role in making self-care fun. To help boost self-care, Ali challenges clients (and herself) to combine various coping strategies. For example, a client could livestream a fitness class with a friend, or a family could do a gratitude reflection together at dinner.

Coping as a community

Muratori says that the COVID-19 pandemic exemplifies communal shared trauma — a traumatic event that affects an entire community directly, indirectly or vicariously. The good news is that community members are finding ways to support one another.

In Dailey’s community, neighbors stood on their porches one night and clapped into empty space to show their support for health care workers. They also placed stuffed bears with hearts on the chests in their windows to show their love for one another. Members of Haynes’ neighborhood also placed stuffed bears in their windows so children could go on a “bear hunt.”

Counselors can encourage clients to look around their communities and notice these resilient acts, Dailey says.

Ali specializes in individual mental health counseling, so her clients typically come to her to work on their own individual concerns. But since the COVID-19 crisis began, Ali has noticed that her clients are also showing more concern for the mental health of those around them, including family members, friends and neighbors.

Ali’s clients are also passing along their coping skills to others. One client noticed a roommate was anxious and suggested that they color together because coloring had previously helped the client manage stress.

Some of Ali’s other clients have been modeling the coping and communication skills they learned in counseling for their children at home. This includes using “I” statements, taking breaks and practicing self-care.

Ali also found a way to use her expertise to serve her community. Ali noticed a pattern of heightened stress among people in her life (herself included) because of the pandemic, but as a counselor, she also knew that this reaction was normal. She realized, however, that others in her community might not understand the emotions they were experiencing or know how to cope with the increased stress.

“This [pandemic] is not just exacerbating mental health concerns for people who are in counseling. This is also highlighting mental health problems for people who are not in counseling,” she says.

Of course, Ali couldn’t provide counseling to her entire community, so she and two other LMHCs, Candice Conroy and Sanya Matani, started offering a free virtual lesson to help people better understand and cope with the stress they might be experiencing because of COVID-19. The three LMHCs made it clear that the lesson wasn’t a substitute for counseling and provided resources for people to seek professional help.

Coping as a counselor

Haynes and Muratori express concerns about the stress levels counselors might experience throughout the pandemic and even after the initial threat subsides. “They need to take care of themselves better than they ever have before,” insists Haynes, author of Take Control of Life’s Crises Today! A Practical Guide.

Counselors need to apply the same coping strategies and tools to themselves that they give to clients, Haynes says. These include getting proper sleep, exercising, connecting with others, taking breaks, processing their emotions, turning off the news and getting outside.

Ali acknowledges that she has been feeling the stress of handling her own anxieties and concerns about the pandemic while also maintaining her current caseload. At first, the pandemic was the main topic for all of her clients, but this is evolving, she says. Now that most of her clients have adjusted to a new routine, they are again discussing their primary concerns that originally brought them to counseling. Still, Ali thinks it is important to do a quick check-in with her clients about how they are coping with the ongoing stress of COVID-19.

Self-care becomes even more important for counselors when sessions all deal with the same topic, giving clinicians few breaks to escape from it, Ali says. She has been coping with her stress by journaling, doing yoga, dancing, walking her dog, practicing mindfulness, reading, doing video chats and exercising.

Counselors need to remember that they are affected (whether directly or indirectly) by this pandemic too. Before the pandemic, most of Ali’s clients used traditional counseling, but with physical distancing rules in place, they now mainly use telebehavioral health. Ali acknowledges that staring at a screen for long periods of time has been taxing for her.

Taking breaks from the screen and using a semistructured schedule for both her personal and work schedules have been helpful coping strategies for her. When she feels particularly overwhelmed, she also practices a “digital detox,” putting her digital devices away for a day and focusing on her self-care to find her equilibrium. If a complete digital detox seems intimidating to counselors or clients, she encourages them to create small, manageable digital boundaries such as stepping away from their devices for a few hours or setting a timer to minimize their use of electronics.

For counselors in private practice, isolation can be another pronounced risk during the pandemic, Haynes points out. He highly recommends that counselors seek out colleagues for consultation, support and supervision during this stressful time.

Much like counselors advise their clients to look for individual and community strengths, clinicians can listen for examples of clients’ resilience, Dailey says. This may result in vicarious resilience, a concept developed by Pilar Hernandez-Wolfe, David Gangsei and David Engstrom in which therapists experience their own personal growth by witnessing and recognizing the growth of their clients.

Adjusting to a new normal

Even after the number of COVID-19 cases subsides, life won’t just go back to normal. The reentry process is going to upset people’s routines all over again, Haynes predicts. For that reason, he and Muratori advise that counselors prepare to take a more directive stance with some clients and focus on their life skills during the transition back toward a “new normal.”

Counselors may need to provide clients with guidelines, instructions or demonstrations, or they may have to model or teach clients new skills, Haynes and Muratori say. For instance, some clients who have been laid off may need help filing for unemployment, conducting a job search or applying for new jobs. Others may need guidance on how to safely reenter their workplace or physically interact with family, friends and community members for the first time in months.

Counselors will also have to help clients manage expectations, Dailey says. For example, many clients may now be dreaming of returning to work, but when that finally happens, they could very well find themselves stuck in meetings again and wondering what their kids are doing at home. Likewise, parents feeling impatient about their children returning to school may have forgotten what the old morning struggle was like to get everyone off to school and work on time.

Adjusting back to something resembling the previously normal routine as stay-at-home orders are lifted will take time. Dailey thinks the adjustment will come in phases. People returning to work will be one round of adjustments. Then there will be another adjustment period as schools attempt to reopen in the fall. 

It is also important to note that clients won’t just be going back to “work as normal,” Dailey says. Even if they return to the same job and the same physical work location, things promise to be different in the wake of COVID-19. These differences may cause some clients to feel relief, whereas others will experience a new round of anxiety and fear.

Dailey compares these adjustment phases to a flipbook. Everybody has their own unique story with the pandemic, and every page of the flipbook represents a new experience, a new adjustment. Counselors can help clients process and cope with these adjustments by “flipping” through their stories, stopping at certain points, and assessing how the clients reacted and coped with that part of their story. The tools they used to cope — making art, meditating, sewing, exercising — are ones they can use again in the future as they adjust to a new phase, Dailey says.

The COVID-19 pandemic possesses the potential to change the counseling field and how professional counselors work with clients now and in the future, Haynes says. Since the turn of the century, it’s true that the United States has experienced major crises such as 9/11, large-scale natural disasters and the Great Recession, but, as Haynes points out, there hadn’t been a crisis on a global scale like a world war until COVID-19. This experience could shift the focus more toward prevention and preparation (both for individuals and for systems on a national level) for future crises, he says.

Adjusting to this new normal doesn’t have to be all negative. Once we reenter society after the threat of COVID-19 subsides, we will be able to celebrate regaining some of our old coping strategies as well as the acquisition or discovery of new strengths along the way.

Counselors are in position to help clients gain greater perspective and self-awareness while coping with the stress and loss that the pandemic has introduced, Ali says. To aid in that process, she sometimes asks clients who have already adjusted and are successfully coping with this stress and loss, “What are you learning during this time?”

In asking that question, Ali has found that several of her clients now understand how the coping skills they previously learned in counseling have helped them handle this stressful moment in history.

How we cope with the stressors of COVID-19 can tell us a lot about ourselves, Ali says. While it may be unpleasant, we can use these times as learned lessons that will help us continue to adapt and manage stressors in the future.

But for now, just take a deep breath.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.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.