You’d think that as a therapist, I’d be a pretty good listener. Sometimes I am. But too often I find myself not allowing enough silence, not giving clients enough time to gather their thoughts, sit with their feelings, simply be in the presence of a supportive witness. And it’s not just clients whom I deprive of this quiet space; when I respond too quickly with a question, a comment, or a reflection, I also deny myself the gift of time to sit with my own thoughts, feelings, and possible responses.
It’s not just in the therapy office. Like a lot of folks, I notice that in everyday conversations, I’m often quick to respond, sometimes “helping” someone finish a sentence (are they truly not capable of finding the words, if given a moment?), or starting to speak before another person has even finished what they were saying. Sometimes people don’t mind; other times, I see a slight tensing up, or closing down, or a flash of irritation.
Maybe it’s anxiety, this difficulty sitting with silence. Or maybe it’s just habit, years of responding quickly rather than allowing a small pause before speaking.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably “yes." Most of us are great at talking, and great at responding, but perhaps a bit less great at allowing brief moments of silence during conversations. In fact, in group discussions, if you don’t jump in at the first millisecond between comments, it can seem like you’ll never get a word in edgewise…and so the conversation becomes a kind of competition for airtime. Still fun and engaging, but also kind of exhausting. And daunting for anyone on the shy or quiet side.
So I was intrigued some years ago when I discovered a jewel of a technique in the marvelous book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff by the late psychologist Richard Carlson. Carlson called it “Breathe before you speak” and that’s exactly what it is.
Here are the instructions:
Before you respond in a conversation, take a breath. Not an enormous, loud, obvious breath that screams out “I am trying a new technique for better listening!”. No, just a normal, simple, ordinary breath. That’s it. The whole technique, right there.
Well, yes and no. I’ve assigned this technique to hundreds of students as a homework exercise, and they’re always amazed at just how difficult it turns out to be. We want to jump into the conversation, to respond quickly, to interrupt, to finish the other person’s sentence. And other people may even expect us to do so. So when we take this very small pause, create this tiny space of silence, it can create some anxiety, for ourselves and others. If the anxiety is too intense at first, try a smaller breath, or just an inhale. It will feel easier, and it’ll still make a difference.
And then the magic starts. In the therapy office, when I give clients the gift of a brief quiet space created by that single breath, they invariably sit with their experience, and then continue talking. I wouldn’t have known they had more to say if I’d started speaking myself. The small bit of silence allows them to explore a bit more, to formulate their thoughts, to reflect further on what they are thinking or feeling. In our everyday lives, most of us are not used to having this moment of space to relax and think about what we really want to say, what we are feeling, and what we might—or might not—want to share. Therapy should be a place where we do enjoy that kind of space.
article continues after advertisementAnd something else often happens when I take that breath with clients: at least half the time, I reconsider what I was about to say, either saying nothing at all, or something different than I would have said without the breath. The gift of a moment’s reflection is a gift to myself as well.
In everyday conversation, I find I interrupt people a lot less often. In response, people seem more relaxed when we are talking, knowing they don’t need to rush their words and anticipate being cut off. Sometimes, of course, people get uncomfortable. They’re not sure what’s happening, something just feels different, and they start filling in every breath-long space I create. I am reminded then that a discomfort with silence is pretty widespread. When that happens, I shorten it to a half-breath, a gentle inhale, and the anxiety usually disappears.
So if you want to become a better listener, or a better conversationalist, have a go with this remarkably simple yet surprisingly difficult technique. Try taking a breath before you speak. The impact may surprise you.
by Kerri-Anne Brown, LMHC
“Therapy is for crazy people” said no one ever.
Ok so maybe people have said that. But it’s so far from the truth. Therapy isn’t about making “not so normal” people “normal.” It’s for everyone! I believe that everyone could benefit from therapy at some point in their life.
It’s always interesting to me when I hear other people’s view of going to counseling or therapy. It seems to vary from person to person and from one situation to another. Most people understand the importance of their well-being but struggle to see how their mental health fits in.
Our well-being is multidimensional. It involves several areas and they are all interconnected. There’s our physical, social, emotional, spiritual and even financial well-being. Difficulty in one area will often impact another.
I find that people often give lots of attention to areas such as their physical well-being. They invest in gym memberships, personal fitness trainers and sacrifice their time to commit to regular workouts. They do this because they see the value in doing so. Their physical health obviously matters to them and because they see the benefits, it keeps them motivated to continue.
I like to use the example of when you’re taking a shower. You take care of your entire body and make sure all parts are cleaned well. You don’t focus on a specific area and forget the rest. You give adequate attention and care to all areas when you’re showering. That’s how we should all be approaching our well-being. Making intentional choices to take care of all dimensions of our health.
When you’re struggling with a life issue, seeking therapy says that you value yourself and believe you’re worth it. It says that you see the value in investing in you. If you’re seeking counseling for your relationship, it means that you value this partnership. It’s something meaningful to you. You want to give your best efforts by seeking professional help to ensure its success and longevity.
Talking about your problems is really a sign of strength, not weakness. It takes courage to do what seems hard or scary and to do it anyway.
It’s no secret that life is hard, and we sometimes struggle with the challenges that it brings us. There’s so much value in the therapy experience. Here’s what you get that you’ll be hard pressed to find outside of the therapy room.
There’s no shame in doing what’s best for you and taking care of yourself. Please share this with someone who needs to be reminded of this truth today.
Original article: https://healingwithwisdom.net/say-no-to-shame-and-yes-to-therapy/
It’s not easy feeling like you’re always under the spotlight being judged for each little mistake you make, or at least that’s what you tell yourself. Your mind’s in an endless loop playing what you said and did over and over again. And if you find one little mistake, then the torment of self-bashing begins. You wish you had a time capsule to go back and make things right. You fear what others will think about you and that they will reject and dislike you. You seek to be socially perfect. When in reality, odds are no one even thought twice about your goof up but your anxious mind won’t let you see the truth.
Academically, you work long endless hours just to make those stellar marks. Although most would say “it’s good to have high standards.” They have no idea of the internal hell you put yourself through to achieve perfection. And heaven forbid if you get anything below your set standard. If you come up less than your desired goal you feel as though you have failed, but you’re far from failing, you just don’t see it that way. So instead you resort to telling yourself that you’re stupid, and not smart. Sometimes you call yourself lazy because you procrastinate on tough tasks if only you knew that delay comes from your fear of failing not because you’re lazy. The pressure you place on yourself weighs you down and you wear the “not good enough” label each and every day.
You not only have high standards for yourself but you also have them for others. If people don’t perform up to your expectations then you deem them as incompetent. This causes a lot of frustration because you can’t trust anyone to get things right. And you don’t want someone to ruin the good reputation that you’ve built for yourself. So instead of being a team player you fly solo and try to do two or three jobs at once. Your unrealistic expectations cause you to criticize and judge others and that leads to problems in other areas of your life.
The attempt to be perfect - the epitome of insanity. It’s called perfectionism and it’s the unachievable American dream that’s damaging our emotional and mental health. We strive for perfection with our body, in our performance, and in our relationships. In a society that magnifies mistakes is it any wonder that so many young people attempt the impossible task of being perfect?
You know you’re a perfectionist if you’re:
1. Finding fault in what you or others do
2. Setting unrealistically high-performance standards
3. Being overly critical of mistakes
4. Seeking approval for doing something well
5. Procrastinating and avoiding situations that could result in perceived failure
6. Self-bashing and endless questioning (e.g., do I look good, am I smart enough, will they hate me?)
7. Shrugging off compliments
8. Failing to acknowledge success and victory
9. Spending a lot of time on tasks making them more cumbersome and burdensome than they should be
10. Ruminating on what you shoulda coulda woulda said or how you shoulda coulda woulda done something differently
If you’re a perfectionist, there’s nothing new to you on that list and you know exactly what the desire to be perfect feels like. It’s the self-defeating behaviors that occur when you don’t believe that you did something right. It’s the internal name calling and taunting that occurs when you can’t get your mind to slow down. It’s the feeling that all eyes are on you when you make a mistake. It’s the fear that seizes you and keeps you from trying something new. Perfectionism results in failure because in your eyes, things can always be better and that pressure can lead to a breakdown. A breakdown that can come at a high cost - your psychological health.
According to the American Psychological Association perfectionism among young people has significantly increased since the 1980s. The rise in perfectionism could be associated with the nation's increase in stress, depression, and anxiety. The desire to be perfect has even been tied to suicidal thoughts. In a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Personality, researchers found 45 studies involving 54 samples, with 11,747 participants linking perfectionism to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Researchers reviewed studies with themes of perfectionism centering around excessive expectations on oneself, feeling pressure from others (including parents or society), or holding other people to unrealistically high standards. And the findings indicated that those who scored high on perfectionism also reported having more suicidal thoughts. And those who were reported being self-conscious and overly concerned with meeting their perceived expectation of others’ reported more suicide attempts. The only type of perfectionist that wasn’t linked to suicidal thoughts or attempts was those who hold themselves to high standards, but even this type of perfectionism has been linked to stress and anxiety.
5 Steps to Soothe Your Desire to be Perfect
We all have flaws, fears, and make mistakes and that’s perfectly OK. It’s our imperfections that make life interesting and they help us grow into a stronger more resilient person. We don’t have to strive to achieve the impossible. We are designed to be perfectly imperfect.
By Devon Frye
Late Tuesday morning, news outlets reported (link is external) that fashion designer Kate Spade had been found dead in her home after an apparent suicide. By mid-afternoon, Spade’s name had risen to the top of Twitter’s trending topics.
Experts in suicide prevention warn that when handled improperly, high-profile suicides run the risk of being glamorized by over-dramatized media coverage, which may lead to copycat suicides or the spread of stigma surrounding depression and mental illness. In the wake of these incidents, experts say, media outlets and individuals can (and should) take steps to talk about suicide in a more responsible, empathetic way.
How the Media Can Better Report on SuicideAs the public’s primary source of information following high-profile suicides, the media plays an important role in how these incidents are presented and interpreted, experts say. Following consensus-based guidelines—like those outlined in “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide,” (link is external) a resource developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)—can minimize the risk of “copycat” incidents or the glamorization of death by suicide. According to the AFSP, news outlets should:
Avoid sharing unnecessary details on the means or method of suicide. “The facts are enough,” says Elana Premack Sandler, an associate professor at Simmons School of Social Work who worked with the Suicide Prevention Resource Center on guidelines for developing prevention programs. “It is not helpful to know the exact details, as those details can sensationalize or glamorize death,” she says, which may make suicide seem more attractive to readers facing their own suicidal thoughts. If the deceased left a note, media outlets can include that information but should refrain from giving specifics on the note’s contents, according to Sandler.
Avoid language that criminalizes suicide. The phrase “committed suicide,” while commonly used, is discouraged by organizations like AFSP and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as the word “commit” is often associated with criminal actions. Instead, media outlets are encouraged to use “died by suicide” or “killed him/herself.”
Avoid language that inflates suicide’s prevalence. Referring to a “suicide epidemic” or an “explosion” of suicide rates, particularly after a widely-reported incident, may lead vulnerable people to believe that suicide is a widely accepted option, experts say. When suicide rates do rise—for societies as a whole, or for certain groups—outlets should report on the data without hyperbole.
Focus on the deceased’s life—not just their death. Spade “lived a beautiful life and contributed so much creatively, especially to people's individual experiences of joy,” Sandler says. “It is important to tell the stories of the lives of people who die by suicide, not just about their deaths. Those nuanced pictures provide a much more accurate portrayal.” Photographs, when included in a suicide-related story, should aim to present the deceased in a positive light; photos of the location, visibly distraught friends or family, or method of death should be avoided.
Always include suicide hotline numbers or links to other suicide prevention resources. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) should be included in any story written on suicide, according to Sandler. The media has broad influence in the wake of a high-profile suicide, she says, and “when that power is used to encourage people who are vulnerable to suicide risk to seek help, the media can make a difference.”
Talk about suicide as mindfully as possible. “Suicide isn't something to talk about lightly,” Sandler says. It’s natural to want to talk about a celebrity’s death, particularly if it’s been highly publicized or appears unexpected—but “speaking sensitively, with an awareness that suicide is a personal issue and can be traumatic to individuals, families, and communities, is always important.”
Continue the conversation about depression and suicide. Many who have a personal connection to suicide may be reluctant to speak up about their experiences for fear of stigma, experts say, and the whirlwind conversations that follow a high-profile suicide may do little to mitigate that stigma. “These ‘teachable moments’ after the death by suicide of a high profile individual (can certainly be) helpful,” says psychologist Deborah Serani, the author of Living with Depression. “But real change comes if we can create an open dialogue” about suicide and depression that persists even after the news cycle has moved on.
Acknowledge that suicidal ideation and depression don’t discriminate—and may not always be obvious. “Depression doesn't care if you’re rich or famous, poor or homeless,” Serani says. “It doesn’t care if you’re ordinary or superlatively gifted.” When famous or wealthy people die by suicide, it’s common to feel as if they had everything going for them, Sandler says, but it’s critical to remember that “success does not protect anyone from struggle.”
Encourage anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts to seek help. Resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (link is external) and Crisis Text Line (reachable by texting HOME to 74174) are available 24/7 for individuals in distress, and evidence suggests that most forms of depression respond well to treatment. “Depression is not an experience that fades with the next sunrise or can be shaken off with a newfound attitude,” Serani says. But “with treatment, the brain begins to function normally again—and there should be no shame in reaching out for help.”
Aristotle (384-324 BCE) claims that wit or good humor is a virtue and part of a good life. All virtues are means between the extremes of excess and deficiency, which means the right sort of humor hits a sweet spot between too much and too little. Aristotle calls those who go to the excess in raising laughs “vulgar buffoons.” These people go too far in getting people to laugh; they care more about getting the laughs than they do about how a joke might hurt, harm, or offend someone. Some buffoons try to ingratiate themselves with others or score points by using humor to take people down. There’s also a category of people who turn themselves into the butt of their own jokes. Their goal may be to ingratiate themselves to others or to make the jokes before someone else does. Buffoonery, when directed at oneself, does cause harm to a person, but that harm is often ignored or taken as the price one must pay to be accepted.
A person who is deficient in humor is boorish, according to Aristotle. A boor laughs very little, in part because he finds very little amusing. Furthermore, the boorish person may be impatient with people who laugh and see the humor in a situation. A boor most certainly will never laugh at himself. The boor emits more than a whiff of disapproval with a distinct undertone of superiority.
Both buffoonery and boorishness are unpleasant and even painful to others in related ways. The buffoon may take nothing (including himself) seriously enough, while the boor takes everything (including himself) too seriously. The buffoon and boor each take themselves out of much of the everyday social traffic of life.
What is the right sort of wit? Aristotle would say it is pleasant as opposed to buffoonery and boorishness. It is a gentle good humor not intended to harm or exclude. Right wit is not at another’s expense or one’s own expense. Wit connects people rather than severing or tearing them apart. Many people say they tease only the people they love or that gentle teasing is one way to show love. One must be careful with teasing because people’s tolerance for it varies tremendously. One needs to know someone fairly well before she teases him.
A person may also have the right wit about him or herself. Many of us tell on ourselves not because we are afraid someone will tell first (though that may be true in some cases), but rather because it is a way to make a connection to other people. Some of us can’t wait to tell on ourselves because we know others will appreciate our stories and that will only make them funnier.
There most certainly are different senses of humor and this can cause a variety of problems ranging from harmless to devastating. Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wrote, “What is it like for people not to have the same sense of humor? They do not properly react to each other. It's as though there were a custom amongst certain people for one person to throw to another a ball which he is supposed to catch and throw back; but for some people, instead of throwing it back, put it in their pocket." Not all people love wordplay and puns. Some love knock-knock jokes while others love seeing the absurd in a situation. Some people love sarcasm, which is a form of humor that easily becomes a weapon. The Greek root for “sarcasm,” is to tear or shred. Sarcasm most certainly builds connections within a group of people who delight in it while it can be utterly alienating and hurtful to those who do not. People who love sarcasm will toss the ball back and forth to each other. To the person who does not like sarcasm, it isn’t so much the other person puts the ball in his pocket but rather throws it at your head when you are not looking. This is not to say that sarcasm doesn’t have a place on the terrain of humor. It means a person must carefully wield it and not just because some people find it hurtful. Many people do not understand irony and sarcasm and may as a consequence take another literally. The claim, “I was only kidding and being sarcastic,” or “I was only joking,” may do little to redress a perceived or actual harm.
A person needs to be sensitive to the reasons why she is using wit and what she aims to accomplish in using it. The context is always crucial. A shared wit can defuse a situation or make people feel comfortable and welcomed. Humor can be used to call out a wrong or harm; comedians offer political commentary. People of the same persuasion find it humorous while others with a different orientation do not. The upshot is that humor may include and it may exclude; it may connect you to some and distance you from others.
Your sense of humor is a good barometer of how you see yourself and others. Aristotle might tell us to pay attention to what we find amusing and to whom it connects us. The company a person keeps says a lot (if not everything) about a person’s character. Aristotle might also counsel us to pay attention to when we lose our sense of humor, which may feel like losing a part of yourself. On the flip side, in regaining a sense of humor, you may get an old part of yourself back or make a new part of yourself. Wit is seriously important to our happiness.
If you are dealing with a narcissist in your life or grew up with a narcissistic parent, you may have experienced “gaslighting.” It is a form of verbal and psychological abuse that is insidiously cruel, with the intention of making a person doubt their own sanity. It destabilizes a person and can make you wonder about your own memory or perception of reality.
True narcissists are not accountable for their own bad behavior. It is common for them to blame others and make it someone else’s fault. They use denial, accusation, misdirection and lying to throw you off base. You can walk away wondering if it is just your imagination or if you are sorely mistaken and it is truly your fault. Here are some examples of how gaslighting can play out in relationships.
Claire used manipulative gaslighting on her brother Jack. She was jealous of Jack and when she would go to his house, she would steal things from him. She then proudly displayed those things in her own home. When Jack would visit and see the stolen goods, he would say, “Hey Claire, that’s mine!” Claire then would follow by telling Jack that he had given these items to her and he must have just forgotten! Jack told me he usually caved and chalked it up to his own lapse of memory.
A young woman wrote to me about her narcissistic ex-husband. He had not paid the light bill when they were married. He came home to find her and the children sitting in the dark with candles. She showed him the delinquent bill and he yelled, “I paid that bill, are you going to believe your eyes or me?” As they stood there in the dark!
We see gaslighting happen when a spouse decides to cheat and is attempting to conceal the infidelity. When confronted, it is common for them to accuse their spouse of being crazy, too jealous, or insecure. I’ve talked to many men and women who have been betrayed by their partners who say that for quite some time in their situations with a cheater, they actually thought they were just losing their minds and being unreasonable. They look back after finding the truth and wonder how someone could manipulate them in this way and with such conviction and forceful intent.
Brenda was in therapy discussing her narcissistic mother. When Brenda confronted her mother on childhood issues, the mother’s reaction was to say: “it’s just your imagination!” “You are too sensitive.” “That did not happen.” Brenda then recoiled in self-doubt and wondered if she had just made up her reality. She was left with the feeling that she did not matter.
Many adult children of narcissistic parents attempt to eventually confront their parents about their childhood. This usually does not go well with a narcissist and I don’t encourage it. What usually happens is the narcissistic parent denies the reality, calls their child a liar, or just says they don’t remember it that way at all. This results in the adult child feeling more angst, disappointment and pain. It leaves them with one more experience of not having their feelings validated or acknowledged and they walk away once again feeling loss and lack of authenticity with the parent. One client sadly joked with me saying, “my parents say come on home and visit, we will leave the gaslight on for you!”
Gaslighting is emotionally abusive and ultimately gives the abuser more power to dominate the relationship. It can happen very gradually, so the victim goes from just thinking they misread a situation to really believing they must be going crazy. This can cause long term damage to a person’s mental health resulting in mistrust towards others in general and can even interfere with the ability to form healthy relationships in the future.
If you think you are a victim of gaslighting, here are 5 suggestions:
For many people, sharing their lives with a companion animal (aka pet) has positive benefits while for some it doesn't (link is external). My own take on these matters is that regardless of what the science says, if living with a nonhuman companion works for you, then do it.
I just learned of a very interesting and important study by the University of Liverpool's Helen Brooks and her colleagues called, "The power of support from companion animals for people living with mental health problems: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of the evidence (link is external)" in which these researchers analyzed the extent, nature, and quality of the evidence from 17 international research English language papers. This detailed study is available online and is a fairly straightforward read. There also are direct quotations from participants that nicely summarize different sections of this research paper that focus on the pros and cons of choosing to live with another animal for emotional support. I'm providing some direct quotations because it's essential to understand precisely what the researchers did.
A short summary can be found in an essay titled "Impact companion animals have on owners (link is external)." Below are some snippets from the original research essay to whet your appetite for more.
Concerning the methods they used, the researchers write, "Quantitative evidence relating to the benefits of pet ownership was mixed with included studies demonstrating positive, negative and neutral impacts of pet ownership. Qualitative studies illuminated the intensiveness of connectivity people with companion animals reported, and the multi-faceted ways in which pets contributed to the work associated with managing a mental health condition, particularly in times of crisis. The negative aspects of pet ownership were also highlighted, including the practical and emotional burden of pet ownership and the psychological impact that losing a pet has."
The two review questions on which they focused were: (1) "What is the nature, extent, and quality of the evidence demonstrating the role of pet ownership for those with mental health conditions, with or without comorbid physical health conditions? (2) What is currently known about the mechanisms underlying any impact?"
The results of this study are very interesting and important. The researchers write:
Of the 17 included studies, 15 reported positive aspects of pet ownership for people experiencing mental health problems [9, 27, 28, 29, 30, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 42] and 9 reported negative elements [9, 27, 32, 35, 36, 38, 39, 41, 42]. Neutral effects of pet ownership were reported in some of the included quantitative studies, where no difference in mental health outcomes, social contacts or loneliness were reported for pet owners compared to non-pet owners [29, 32, 35, 40]. Benefits were mostly demonstrated through qualitative data, and negative elements, which were highlighted, were largely over-shadowed by co-occurring positive impact of pets in these studies [9, 27, 32, 35, 36, 38, 42]. [The numbers refer to references that can be found in the paper.]
A number of different themes emerged from their analysis. Each is accompanied by quotations from the people involved. These included:
Emotional work - alleviating worry, providing comfort and mitigating against feelings of isolation and loneliness ("The dog approaches Karin when she’s crying and comforts her by lying next to her and licking away her tears. The dog hears her, and wherever he is in the house, he comes to her. We can’t always comfort her. Sometimes Karin has said, ‘It’s a good thing we have the dog, otherwise, no one would be able to comfort me” .)
Practical work - physical activity and symptom distraction ("But if I’m here and I’m having…having problems with voices and that, erm, it does help me in the sense, you know, I’m not thinking about the voices, I’m just thinking of when I hear the birds singing .")
Pets as conduits to social interaction and emotional nourishment ("That surprised me, you know, the amount of people that stop and talk to him, and that, yeah, it cheers me up with him. I haven’t got much in my life, but he’s quite good, yeah .")
Biographical work - identity, a sense of self-worth and existential meaning ("For Irene, taking care of her companion dog facilitated a change in her sense of self, from seeing herself as someone who “destroyed anything [she] loved” to seeing herself as a loving, nurturing protector .")
There also were some negative aspects of living with a companion. These included financial costs, unruly pets, and the guilt people felt for not being able to manage the animals successfully, and the animals being barriers to travel. One person wrote, "I was trying to care for 3 cats of my own that I loved [and] stray cats in the neighborhood I was feeding. I tried to spay the ones that appeared to be pregnant, and I was putting food out twice a day, and I was just feeling overwhelmed, just overwhelmed and more and more depressed, more a sense of failure, and finally, it just got worse and worse and worse ."
The authors' clearly lay out what they found and what they recommend for future studies:
Despite some inadequacies in the data, this review suggests that pets provide benefits to those with mental health conditions through the intensity of connectivity with their owners and the contribution they make to emotional support in times of crises together with their ability to help manage symptoms when they arise. Further rigorous research is required to test this relationship, incorporating outcomes that cover the range of roles pets may have in relation to mental health identified within this review. The research studies included in this review provide a point of debate that services and policy makers may wish to consider in the future.
If living with a companion animal works for you and the animal, then do it
As an outsider to this field of research, I found this summary of the studies to be very informative. The authors are not saying that living with a companion animal is a panacea for all people suffering from different mental health problems. However, the data they analyzed do point to many benefits for people choosing to do so. In addition, this study and others like it will generate questions that need to be given close attention in the area of pet-assisted therapy. These sorts of discussions are sorely needed so that people can understand the pros and the cons of living with a nonhuman because it's not always necessarily rosy for either or both of the parties.
I often get asked whether living with a dog or other companion animal is really beneficial. A recent study conducted in Sweden showed that living with a dog had beneficial effects especially for people living alone. However, sweeping headlines often make it seem like sharing one's life with a companion animal is always beneficial, and unless people read between the lines, it appears like choosing to live with a dog, for example, is a panacea for all sorts of situations and conditions. It isn't. And surely, the nonhuman has to be part of the equation, because her or his quality of life has to be taken into account. Choosing to live with a dog (or another animal) has to be a two-way affair in which both the human and the dog benefit from the relationship (link is external).
Sharing your home and heart with a companion animal is a huge responsibility that could be highly stressful for people who just don't have the time, energy, money, or knowledge to give the nonhuman the best life possible. The animal also can suffer because of this. I've known, as I imagine many others also have, people with good intentions who choose to live with a dog and then simply can't do what's needed for their nonhuman friend to have a high-quality life. These people then get stressed out because they can't give their dog what she or he needs. So for them, the choice is not a good one, despite their good intentions.
All in all, while available data show that there are, indeed, some health and social benefits for some people who choose to live with a dog or other companion animal, I choose to answer the question of whether living with a dog is good for certain people by clearly saying something like, "Living with a dog is a good idea only if it's good for you and the dog." The living situation must work for the animals themselves (for more discussion of this topic please see "Living With a Dog Is Good, If It's Good for You and the Dog").
My own take on these matters is that regardless of what the science says, if living with a nonhuman companion works for you and the animal, then do it. I look forward to studies that focus on all individuals, human and nonhuman, who are part of the ongoing social relationship. When it's a two-way affair, it's a win-win for all. However, far too often it's not. In many—far too many—situations, dogs want and need far more than they get from us. Let's be sure that in the future the myriad relationships we form with other animals are far more egalitarian.
Sometimes talking through trauma just isn’t enough to make the pain go away.
A specialized form of therapy is growing in the Midwest. In February, 60 psychologists and therapists from across the Midwest were trained here in Des Moines to provide what is know as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
At first glance, EMDR appears similar to hypnosis but mental health professionals assure us it’s not. Studies show it’s making a difference for patients struggling with PTSD and all types of trauma.
People often do not understand how traumatic ordinary life experiences can be. Some experience trauma and don’t even recognize it as the cause of lasting pain, and it can be intimidating to speak out or seek treatment.
In many cases patients are unable to overcome the trauma and it surfaces in the form of depression or leads to patients withdrawing from every day activities, work, friends and family.
“Trauma itself stores in many parts of the brain that are not verbal” says licensed psychologist Tom Ottavi. “That are much more feeling and sensory based. (EMDR) just helps tap into that.
In order to treat the depression, psychologists must first get to the underlying trauma behind it and EMDR is increasingly becoming the preferred method.
“We use eye movements by waving our fingers in front of the person’s eyes to help them accelerate their processing of old material so that it comes to the forefront and moves through the brain faster” explains social worker and EMDR and Beyond director Bonnie Mikelson.
The process appears simple, having patients focus on a therapist’s fingers moving back and forth, or a light bar making the same motion. Studies show the movement helps patients process past trauma, which is the first step toward coping and ultimately moving beyond the pain it caused.
“You want to bring that hyper arousal down so that the person can still remember what happened to them, keep what’s useful, but they don’t have that high distress.”
Mikelson, who led the recent EMDR training, believes the therapy can work for a variety of people.
“With kids we say we’re going to visit the yucky memory and allow them to think about it in a way they didn’t have a chance to when their ability to cope was being overwhelmed” says licensed mental health counselor and EMDR and Beyond clinical director Amy Terrell. “Because of that, it reduces the symptoms that children come into therapy for.”
Ottavi says the technique can even be effective in reducing physical symptoms.
“Literally fainting, going almost into comatose, or even seizure like activity can get worked through, and that’s very powerful because medicine isn’t going to touch that.”
Those who use the therapy say it has completely transformed their practice.
“It’s the client outcomes, it’s just been a game changer” exclaims Mikelson.
“I don’t see repeat clients for a reason. Because once something is gone, it’s just really, truly gone for them and they get to just go live their lives and that’s a pleasure to be a part of” says licensed marriage and family therapist and EMDR trainer Lindsey Olsen.
Leaving people with a better outlook on the future.
“A lot of times, people will say my job’s gotten better, or this relationship has gotten better, or I’m able to speak up for myself when I wasn’t able to before, or I’m able to set boundaries with people where I wasn’t able to before” adds Olsen.
EMDR is not a new therapy, research began back in 1989.
Use of the technique continues to grow and most insurance companies now consider EMDR a medically necessary treatment for PTSD.
For more information check out emdrandbeyond.com.
I write articles based on my experience as a therapist or a training or conference attendee. Many of these articles are written by others who are experts in their field and I share their information as resources for others.