Archive for February, 2013

nature-walk“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Have you ever wondered why people gravitate toward nature when they want to relax? A walk on the beach, sitting by the lake, laying on a blanket at the park, standing in awe of waterfalls, a river, a mountain view, walking a nature trail, camping, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, backpacking and the list goes on. How come this is so attractive?  Look at music videos during church, rarely is there one that depicts scenery that does not involve nature as the setting. Coincidence? Hardly, there is a connection between our stress and anxiety levels and spending time in the great outdoors. While not true for everyone, most people marvel at nature, it’s peaceful and found living on its own terms. Sure, we attempt to bottle it up and put it into a zoo or theme park, but when we find it out in the wild there is something special that happens in those moments.

History and Research

Research and how nature impacts therapy goes back to the early 1990’s when a Psychologist by the name of Dr. Francine Shapiro noticed she felt better after taking nature walks and had a sense of feeling calmer. She followed up with it conducting years of research to try and understand why this was happening. To make a long story short, this initial walk in the woods was the beginning what is known today as EMDR, an acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It is a common technique used to treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which is a form of anxiety based on exposure to past traumatic events.

How It Works

 When we are out in nature the mind and our eyes scan looking around in a controlled manner and tend to focus on natural objects. In the process of looking around we fixate on an object, even if only for a second, and then another and another while sweeping back and forth from left to right and back again. When we are experiencing high levels of anxiety our eyes shift around in a very rapid motion in an uncontrolled way. This may also explain why we close our eyes to avoid stress, to take a moment to breathe and gain back some composure of our well being. Dr. Shapiro notes in her research what she discovered about herself that it is the controlled movement of the eyes, like mini/multiple focal points, is what produces the relief from anxiety.

What is intriguing is the whole process began with a simple solution for Dr. Shapiro, to relieve stress and relax her mind by taking a nature walk. Recently, some combat veterans who suffer from PTSD have also reported that time spent doing outdoor recreation activities helps relieve their symptoms. Popular outdoor themed recreation ventures designed to help veterans are beginning to spring up such as Heroes on The Water which is a kayak fishing organization designed to get veterans out and on the water fishing. Chances are there are plenty of local organizations whose sole purpose is designed to get outside, and for good reason.

Self Help

There are plenty of ways to get outside and one of the easiest can be to visit a local park and find a trail or path that has some of the key ingredients essential for relieving anxiety. Trees work very well as opposed to open field. Trees give closeness and the opportunity to look around for even the smallest of wildlife. Slow down the pace and make it more of a stroll, this is not about being competitive or trying to burn off those next 2 inches off the waistline. Take something along to feed some ducks at a local pond. Avoid taking music or headphones as this can be a distraction from the therapeutic experience. Taking a pet along for the stroll can be good too, both can benefit from being outside. Remember, the idea is to relax and enjoy being outside and to just take it all in.

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originalJournaling is a common mental health counseling technique that often has positive results. Journaling gives a person an outlet, a way to express themselves in a personal and private way without interference from other people. The privacy of journaling allows for freedom of expression and fosters a non-judgmental way of being able to say what a person really wants to say. Getting started can be simple with a composition book or on a laptop. Typically people who hand write their journals have a better outcome than typing for two reasons; 1. Hand writing is more expressive, like art, and 2. It can slow down the thought process allowing for deeper exploration of thoughts and feelings.

A Chance to Explore Feelings

Journaling doesn’t have to be like the one we experience as children like writing to ourselves in the sense of “Dear Diary.” It can be simple and start with notebook or composition book. Date it and just begin writing. Pick a quiet place without distractions and begin an orientation with something like “Today I feel…” and fill in the blank with sad, happy, anxious and explore that feeling. Sometimes it can help by getting a feeling faces chart (easily found on the internet) and begin with looking to identify what you are feeling. Most people after writing about how they feel report that they have a better understanding of what it means to have those feelings and how it affects them.

A Chance to Explore Thoughts

What we think about can greatly impact how we live our lives. Journaling about the thoughts a person has can lead to greater insight as to how those thoughts play into our lives. Thinking patterns can become exposed and can shed some light on how to manage ourselves in certain situations. Common themes to look for are excessive negativity or perhaps being too naïve about certain things. Becoming conscious about these patterns can help offset them in future situations.

Helps Relieve Mood Issues

Distressing moods such as depression and anxiety are often relieved by journaling. It can create a comforting medium by bringing you down when anxious and bringing you up when feeling down. Expressive arts are very useful in encouraging people to express what they are feeling as they are working, to talk it out on paper and bring relief to distressing moods. Journaling can also help keep track of when and where the moods are being experienced the most such as time of day or after being exposed to certain triggers that are related to the mood.



A Chance to Be Vulnerable

If you are in therapy trying to work out some personal problems, sometimes being able to say what you really want to say can be challenging. The feeling of being vulnerable to allow yourself to just be you in a therapy session can take time. Usually after rapport is built with the therapist and safety and trust have been established are people comfortable with fully opening up. Sometimes people can be afraid to say something out of fear that there is something really wrong with them implying that they are somehow as a person fundamentally flawed. In the safety and trust of your journal you are free to say whatever you want. The idea is to be able to express yourself to feel better and ultimately heal. Journaling is a tool to be used for such a purpose. It’s okay to write and express the odd thoughts and find out what that means to you.

Make Time for It

Like anything else in life that is a worthwhile endeavor time must be set aside for it. It doesn’t have to me much, maybe 15 minutes per day. We take time out of our lives to exercise, work and play, take time for yourself and get a better understanding of who you are. Remember, journaling is a tool; it is a chance to have a safe place to express yourself and not worry about what others are going to say or think about whom you are as a person. One last thing, make it your own. There are no rules for creating your own journal and does not have to be limited to words, if necessary, adding objects to the journal can make it a more meaningful experience.

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If you are feeling depressed there may be something you can do to relieve it. Feeling depressed can be due to an imbalance in the brain neurotransmitter called Serotonin of which medication from a medical doctor can help to stabilize. While antidepressants can help lift mood this is often not the sole culprit for depression. Studies show that the most effective way to relieve depression is through both mood stabilizers and talk therapy such as mental health counseling. Talk therapy helps bring a person to understanding and healing of why the depression is occurring in the first place with a goal of getting off of being dependent on mood stabilizing medications. There are times however when the body has a chronic problem with producing enough Serotonin to hold the lifted mood. In this case long term treatment with medications may be necessary under a medical doctor’s care.

When focusing on talk therapy there are three ways (formulas) that can help to relieve some of the depressive feelings. The first formula is about trying to change what cannot be changed. The Serenity Prayer is a brilliant piece of literature for addressing the worry that leads to depression. In this prayer part of it reads “to accept the things I cannot change.” Sometimes people can have the propensity to mull over things that they want changed and they hyper-analyze it to death. In the process of analyzing there is an absence of realizing that nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes. Over time it begins to weigh down the psyche, aka depressed. Sometimes we have to learn how to accept the things we cannot change, let it go, leave it in the past and move on.

Another formula leading to depression is unmet expectations. Unmet expectations fall into basically 3 common areas; expectations we have of ourselves, we have of others and those others have of us. Expectations are commonly grounded in childhood experiences when we learn how to handle life as it comes to us. However, when some needs become unmet they can turn into something else such as anger, anxiety and depression. One way to counter this is to begin to think or explore other alternatives to gratify the need.

The third formula is based on a cognitive distortion also known as unhelpful thinking habits. There are many of these patterns that can lead to mood problems, however there is one aptly named “compare and despair” which can be a real culprit when comparing our situation to others. What happens in a situation like this is people have a tendency to see the good in others, compare to what they have in themselves, and then come to the conclusion that they are not as good as others. If this goes on for too long and forms into a habitual way of thinking it can create a long term pattern of negative thinking. If everyone in the world around us is better than us, the underlying message often translates into something along the lines of “I don’t measure up” or “I am not good enough.” A helpful way of looking at a situation would be to strike a balanced way of self examination. If focused on just the negative, what are some positive things to help offset those things?

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unstuck Feeling stuck in life can bring about unsettling emotions and negative thinking. It can create questions in the mind about life, career, family and a whole host of other thinking patterns that can lead to major changes. Often the source of frustration for feeling stuck isn’t so much about the position someone finds themselves as it is about how they think about how they see themselves in their current situation. This negative thinking pattern over time can lead into other issues such as low self-esteem, self-worth, depression and anxiety. To head this off at the pass before it gets to that level and therapy is needed to reverse course there are a few things a person can do to help get directed back into a positive mindset.

Watch out for and filter internal self dialogue that has a critical voice saying something that leads to thinking “I’m not good enough and I’m incompetent.” This can lead to feelings of guilt and shame which has an underlying tone  that translates into “I am doing something wrong, or I am a bad person.” This is language of negative thinking and when it goes on for too long it becomes a habit. Just like any other habit, the longer it is done the more reinforced it becomes.

Now the good news. Getting into a negative thinking pattern is something that is learned and when something is learned it can be relearned. It  is like learning bad math and going through life with the understanding that 3 plus 2 equals 6 can be frustrating. The idea is to learn new ways of doing things by replacing the old ways with new ways with something more realistic.  Many years ago Alcoholics Anonymous figured this out and they use a common phrase saying “watch out for your stinking thinking.” They know that thinking despairing thoughts leads to distress and unhealthy coping mechanisms. So how does someone get into a more healthy and realistic frame of mind? Here are a few things that can help lead to change.

  • Be a self role model. If there is something that you do not like about yourself then acting more like the person you want to be can be a good starting point. This can be real or imagined, envision what this might look like and work toward that vision.
  • Take inventory of your posture. The way a person walks, talks, sits and stands can make a difference in how they feel about themselves. Using a confident posture can help a person feel more confident about who they are and their purpose in life.
  • No matter how small or big an achievement do some self rewarding. Feeling good and celebrating achievements helps reinforce something that was done that is good and puts things in a more positive light.
  • Recognize and accept your strengths. Be thankful for compliments and at times give some out to others. Sometimes a helpful way can be to write compliments down or thank you cards and put them into a file. If feeling negative a good technique for lifting mood in the future is to pull out that file and read a few of the notes tucked away.
  • Changing language to reflect motivation. Changing internal motivational language goes from “I will try” to “I will.” Trying can influence self doubt about the ability to achieve something and leaves an easy out. Motivational language reflects determination and a positive attitude about how “I can do it and I will do it.”

When feeling stuck take a look at the bigger picture and think about how there may be other ways of doing things. This list is not exhaustive and being creative on how to get unstuck goes a long way. Step outside of yourself and see how you would see yourself if you were another person. What would that person say to you? What would you say to another person if they were having the same experience?

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Sermon on Depression and Suicide.

I am re-posting this article from a friend and colleague of mine Christine Hammond. The sermon she posted on depression and suicide absolutely nails an issue that should be told in every church and community. This is a real and very serious issue and the pastor of this sermon just tells it like it is. – Brian

Click to access God-and-Suicide-Luke-13.31-35.pdf


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