Wednesday, August 22, 2018

How to Recognize and React to Verbal Abuse

All too often clients come in upset and confused by recent conversations with a family member. Much of the time, both my client and their family member have good intentions but are caught up in unproductive communication patterns which can be improved with care and effort.  Unfortunately, sometimes clients are experiencing the destabilizing emotional and physical effects of verbal abuse.

What always impresses me is how people attribute the best motivations to their partners, parents, siblings or others. People want to believe the best about others, which is a wonderful and redeeming quality of humankind. However, the flip side of this optimistic view is that sometimes we minimize or deny truly mean-spirited, manipulative or de-humanizing treatment.

Clients who live in an environment with verbal abuse often have trouble trusting their perceptions and wonder if they are “exaggerating”, “making it up” or are “too sensitive”. They also are often blamed for bad moods or problems of their abusive family member or friend, which can make them feel guilty or ashamed for no reason. Often people feel like they are walking on egg shells or have given up in trying to get their needs met in this relationship. 

Types of verbal abuse
  1. Persistent blame and criticism and failing to take personal responsibility for mistakes or behavior.
  2. Name calling, swearing, yelling, screaming or consistently refusing to allow the victim to state their opinion or feelings. 
  3. Gaslighting; the use of consistent denial, misdirection, contradiction and lying to make the victim question their sanity. For example, when confronted with a statement such as “yesterday you told me you were mad at me and refused to come to my parent’s house”, the abuser might say “I didn’t say that” or “you took it the wrong way”. 
  4. Manipulation. For example, “If you really cared about me you would do this my way”.
  5. Minimizing the accomplishments of the victim.

Good people with bad communication habits can learn healthier ways to communicate. Therapists can help, but unfortunately abusers usually refuse to seek help. Verbal abuse is extremely detrimental to the physical and mental health of victims, causing maladies such as chronic pain, headaches, TMJ, digestive problems, auto-immune disorders, depression, anxiety or PTSD. 

Often, people can’t leave an abusive relationship immediately. If your circumstances require you to interact with  a verbal abuser, you can fight back.

Strategies for surviving verbal abuse
  1. Stick to the facts. Abusers will often try to distract from their bad behavior by changing the subject or getting emotional. Directing the conversation back to the facts can help. In high stakes conversations or meetings, prepare for the conversation with an agenda and notes.
  2. Call them out. When the abuser calls you a name or blames you for something clearly out of your control, name the behavior: “stop the name-calling”, or “stop blaming me for something out of my control”. 
  3. Don’t get reeled in. Verbal abusers often use guilt to manipulate. If the other person is trying to manipulate you by making you feel guilty, ask them why they are trying to make you feel guilty. Know that abusers often feel powerless and this strategy brings a false sense of power. 
  4. Know yourself. Abusers will often gossip or spread lies about their victims. Know that people who know you well and are strong and caring won’t usually believe the abuser.
  5. Become a relaxation strategy  expert.  Yoga, deep belly breathing, meditation, guided imagery, prayer are just some of the things that can hep re-calibrate your nervous system after an interaction with an abuser
  6. Talk to a trusted friend or professional  It is crucial to know that you are not broken or flawed, and informed folks will validate you. In a crisis, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-SAFE (7233) or the National Dating Abuse Hotline 866-331-9474 or if you feel at risk of self injury or injury from another call 911. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Cooking Up a Cure

As you can imagine, the topic of food comes up a lot in client sessions. Over or under indulgence in food are extremes that many of us use to cope when we are stressed or unhappy. Unfortunately, over time this strategy results in health problems, sometimes life-threatening ones. Although challenging, especially in our “super-size-me culture, it is important to find balance and peace of mind in our relationship with food.

If you were hoping to read about how to eat for optimal physical and mental health, you can check out my post The Power of the Gut-Brain Connection . There you will find plenty of ways to improve your physical and mental health through food.

Today, I want to share my thoughts about food and mood from a different perspective. It is a cold February Sunday in Connecticut, and I was inspired by the many references made to pork shoulder in an engaging and thought-provoking novel I finished recently, Kitchens of the Great Midwest  (J. Ryan Stradal). I wanted to try pork shoulder because it is especially suited to how I like to cook on Winter Sundays- I get a stew or soup going by mid-day and enjoy the smell and anticipation of the meal to come.

If you are familiar with pork shoulder you know it is NOT a low-fat meat and likely has never been used in the same sentence with the word “healthy”.  Cooking an indulgence like this is where balance comes in. Healthy eating most days and meals of the week leaves room for most us for an occasional treat.

This kind of pleasure is incredibly worthwhile on many levels. First, food fully engages our senses. Good smells, tastes, textures and new flavor combinations are fantastic for our mood and can even reduce anxiety. Food is often visually appealing, and taking in the color and shapes of a beautiful dish is wonderfully calming for our busy brains.

Cooking for ourselves and others is a healing act of self-care and love.
I can still remember the sweet smell of vanilla-laced sugar cookies baking as I worked side by side with my grandmother, who thrilled me as an eight-year-old when she gave me an apron like hers. I loved it even more when she had me roll out the dough or sprinkle colored sugar on the cookies. This nurturing childhood memory has become a lovely piece of my decades long narrative around family and food.

I try to continue the tradition of sharing love by enjoying conversation with family and friends by preparing and sharing a fragrant, tasty meal whenever possible. Its a fantastic respite that slows the passage of time and restores me from the demands of busy work days.   

If you dont have good memories connecting food and love, I enthusiastically encourage you to take some baby steps towards creating some. The abundance of online recipes, complete with video demonstrations, make it easy to learn how to cook or, for accomplished cooks, to learn new skills and recipes. If you live alone or your family migrates to their own corners to eat, or eats at different times, shake things up and invite someone to join you. Try meals from different cultures and you may discover a love of a spice or an herb that is new to you and a recipe to add to your regular rotation.  

Heres to finding more satisfaction and connection through food. Now if you dont mind, I am going to excuse myself to join my husband to break bread and try Peruvian Pork Stew with Chilies, Lime and Apples.

Be well,

photo by Joanie Simon, food blogger

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Healing after Tragedy

The unspeakable horror experienced by Las Vegas concert goers on Sunday was more than unnerving, it was debilitating and gut-wrenching. The effects of this traumatic tragedy will be felt for a very long time. For me, it was the “last straw” in a string of horrific recent world events. I was and still am struggling to make sense of the suffering that is taking place in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean Islands, in Houston and in Florida post Hurricanes; and in Mexico post-Earthquakes. The political divisiveness and inefficiency in the US and its ripple effects throughout the world is certainly not helping matters and has felt life-altering since the election.

In session, many of my clients have been sharing the strong feelings these events bring up for them: fear, anger, outrage, fury, disbelief, helplessness, hopelessness, confusion, curiosity, empathy and compassion. My job as a trauma therapist is to help clients regain some sense of safety, experience their feelings in a safe, nonjudgmental space and heal from their personal and collective traumas.

Plenty of research shows that people can regain an improved sense of well-being by taking action to help others who are suffering, including survivors of mass disasters and traumas, Although many of us feel that we have little to nothing to offer, this is never truly the case.

Although I have fantasies of making like Pitbull and flying my (imaginary) private plane to Puerto Rico to help, for me that is not realistic. I can however, send a donation to relief organizations and offer a spot at no charge for a local individual in need of trauma therapy.

Consider making a donation, no matter how small, to a well-regarded relief or political organization whose mission you embrace. Check them out first: charitywatch or charitynavigator. Send thank you letters to first responders or call a Dunkin Donuts in Las Vegas and buy coffee and donuts to be delivered to the ER in one of the hospitals or first responder organizations. If a story you read about one of the victims and their families moves you, see if you can locate their address and send a condolence letter. Whether you are religious or not, prayer is very healing.  The benefits of prayers are magnified if done in a live, virtual or energetic community. 

Courtesy of Las Vegas Review Journal
Small, local acts of kindness are also healing. Check on a neighbor who lives alone, wave someone in to long line of traffic, thank a teacher or other “giver” who is in your life. Tell them how much they mean to you.

Make a call or send an email to your local legislators to voice your opinion about gun control, climate control, or insurance coverage. Consider joining a political organization that stands for the change you want to see in the world. Try hard to stay involved- change takes time and persistence. For more on how to heal through action, you may want to check out the post I wrote after the Sandy Hook tragedy: self-helpsage.blogspot.

In addition to taking action and helping others, it’s incredibly important to take extra good care of yourself in challenging times. Don’t forget to be extra kind to yourself and your family and get adequate sleep; and regular, healthy meals and exercise. If outdoor exercise is possible for you, do it! It is even better for mood than an indoor workout.

Check out Sunnyskyz, a "good news" website. Be wary of reading or watching extensive news coverage.  This makes most of us feel worse, not better. Think about watching a favorite movie or show, reading an uplifting book, listening to music, or reaching out by phone to a beloved friend or relative. If overwhelming feelings persist, try meditating, journaling or writing a list of people or things you are grateful for. If you start to worry that you are a loved one are really struggling with mood or behavior, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help. We are living in challenging times and positive, human connection is powerful.  

Sending peace and healing,

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Two Words to Know in Trauma Treatment

We all experience trauma. Our life experiences and resilience levels vary and effect the degree to which trauma impacts us. Untreated, trauma symptoms limit enjoyment of life and productivity.  Common signs of trauma and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) include difficulty regulating emotions, anxiety, an inability to maintain stable or fulfilling relationships, feelings of unreality and/or gaps in memory (dissociative symptoms), depression, anger, nightmares, emotional numbness, unwarranted guilt, sleep problems, substance abuse, eating disorders and paranoia. The senseless acts of fear, hate and violence in Minnesota, Baton Rouge and Dallas this week, along with today’s global and political climate, create despair, grief and uncertainty and exacerbate pre-existing trauma symptoms.

In my practice, I have witnessed the lasting effects of trauma: bullying, addiction in the family, emotional, verbal and physical abuse, accidents, invasive or upsetting medical procedures, sexual assault, neglect, natural disasters, loss, birth trauma, nasty divorces, the lingering effects of 9/11 plus those with multiple accumulated traumas.

A few years ago I began to offer less talk therapy and employ more guided imagery, breath work, meditation and other relaxation techniques with clients who felt “stuck”.  Pleased with the positive response clients reported from mind-body work, I found myself eager to gain an even higher level of expertise.

In 2015 I began studying Somatic Experiencing (SE), a body-oriented approach to healing trauma and other stress disorders. Developed by Dr. Peter A. Levine, it incorporates his 45 years of clinical experience, aspects of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics.

The SE approach gently increases capacity for difficult bodily sensations and suppressed emotions and helps the body move through and out of the fight, fight or freeze mode caused by trauma. A Somatic Experiencing session can be conducted by a mental health clinician or a body worker, and can be done with or without physical touching.
After almost two years of engaging in SE training, I have had the good fortune to not only practice as therapist, I have also been the lucky recipient of SE while in the client role. The results have reaffirmed the belief I held for this therapeutic form. Multiple talk therapy sessions for a decades-old traumatic car accident had helped me, but not in the same way that SE did. The physical and emotional benefits have been profound.
One of the many aspects of SE I like is that it is well suited to people who don’t like to talk a lot. A skilled SE practitioner may only have a client talk for several minutes before beginning SE, which doesn’t require a verbal narrative from the client. This is very freeing to many who feel self-conscious, who are not verbally adept, or are afraid to tell their story. I have witnessed clients make extensive progress in their healing after a few sessions of SE. Children are also great candidates for SE, as they are often more self-aware of bodily sensations and have had less practice than adults have at intellectualizing their distress. Clients who are already very self-aware and/or have identified very specific treatment goals make tremendous progress with SE.
I became a clinical social worker to reduce suffering and enhancing quality of life for others. I am deeply grateful SE is available not only to my clients but also to the many others around the globe who are survivors of life’s biggest challenges.

For additional reading on the foundations of Somatic Experiencing, I recommend Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, by Peter Levine. For more information on Somatic Experiencing and the Foundation for Human Enrichment, visit

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Moms: It’s February: Re-vamp and Refine Your Resolutions

Those of us who make New Year’s resolutions are usually derailed just a few short weeks into the year. If you are in this camp, don’t despair. I will give you six proven tips for getting back on track and staying there.
1. Set goals, not resolutions
Most resolutions fail because they require a big and immediate behavior change: for example, launch web site by February 15, or lose 10 pounds by Spring. Setting goals instead of resolutions gives you flexibility to choose different paths to your goal, and to break them down into manageable steps. For example, rather than simply listing “launch web-site by February 15,” first learn about the steps involved in creating web sites. Step one might be research different web-hosting companies geared to small business. Decide how much time you will devote to the research. Then block your calendar on specific days at specific times to do the research. Step two might be choosing a logo. Decide whether this is something you are good at, or should delegate, and precede accordingly.

2.Give guilt the boot
You deserve success. Moms trying to make strides in a venture or hobby often carry a heavy burden: guilt. Baby boomers and women from traditional families often feel guilty if they are not “all Mom, all the time”. This view is unrealistic and unhelpful. In fact, when your children see you working, they are learning important life skills. Furthermore, if your creative or intellectual side is fulfilled, you will be happier. Research supports what you already know: that when Mom is content, the whole family is happier.

3. Think about what you really want
Write down the goals most meaningful to you.  Start a journal and answer the following:
What do I want to achieve in my business/hobby?
How much time am I willing to devote to it?
How do I see myself in one, three or five years from now?

4. Prioritize and break goals down into small steps
The other obstacle most moms face is finding the time and energy for their many responsibilities. Most of us over-estimate how much we can accomplish in a day. I highly recommend writing down all the tasks you accomplish in a week, or even a full month. Get a calendar that includes 15-minute increments. Fill in every task, no matter how menial and repetitive: sleeping, driving time, doctor appointments, etc.  This is an important way to learn how much time you truly have to devote to your pursuits of choice. You will then be able to better predict how many weeks or months it will take to achieve the “small steps” of your goals. You might decide to delegate some of the household tasks. Break down business goals into weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual increments.

5. Review and revise
Review and update your goals regularly. Fine tune them, or devise new ones. Figure out which obstacles are hindering you, and determine what you need to do to overcome them.
6. Be patient with yourself and others
Expect roadblocks: technology will fail, competition will crop up, and your children will need your guidance. Breathe, visualize yourself achieving your goal, and be patient.
You will achieve your goals, but never exactly the way you expected, and that’s OK!