Runaway Brain: Making Sense of My Emotions

By: Dr. Jennie Fincher, PH.D., LPC-S

The brain is an amazing and complicated organ. We absolutely need it live and more importantly, we need it to function well to live well. There are three main types of emotion regulation systems: threat system, drive system, and soothing system. All mental health problems are related to an overuse of the threat and drive systems. We can hold onto the pain of the past, we can get triggered by unwanted anxieties about the future, and we can attack ourselves with our inner-critic.

Read to the end to learn ways to soothe your threat and drive systems and generate a sense of calm and resilience, so that you can be more free to choose how you respond to difficult thoughts (e.g., painful memories, negative predictions, and self-criticism), challenging emotions (such as fear, anger, pain, sadness, and loneliness) or any other situation that you may find personally challenging.

Threat System

The threat system operates on a ‘better safe than sorry’ principle, aimed at keeping us alive by scanning for and identifying threats. It is a very powerful system. It can activate powerful bursts of feelings that alert us to threats and this can motivate us to take action. It does this by creating feelings of anxiety or fear in response to potentially threatening stimuli. The behavioral ramifications include fight-flight response, submission, or self-attacking and self-criticism. The threat system involves stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Research shows that negative information captures our attention much more powerfully than positive information, this is called a negativity bias. Because it is one of the brain’s most powerful systems, it is easy for this system to take up more than its fair share of mental and physical energy. Due to our brain’s ability to imagine and ruminate, it is possible to keep this system running even in the absence of any actual external threat.

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Drive System

The drive system is a motivational system that also has roots in our evolution. It drives us toward the things we want or need in order to succeed. It alerts us to opportunities for pursuing goals and securing resources and helps us focus on these pursuits. The drive system can be powerfully motivating and can narrow our focus on whatever we are pursuing, to the detriment of ourselves and others. This drive system is highly influenced by the neurochemical, dopamine. Dopamine serves to acts as our built-in reward system. We experience a flood of dopamine whenever we achieve something that we set out to achieve. When in balance with the other two systems, the drive system can help keep us motivated to pursue important life goals. However, it can also lead to addictive and compulsive behavior (e.g., the high associated with illicit drug use or compulsive behaviors to avoid anxiety). The drive system, when unbalanced, can lead people to pursue achievement in unrelenting ways, leading to stress, perfectionism, and depression.

System Imbalance

When the threat and drive systems are in overdrive, they can lead to mental health problems. For example, the threat system can be overused to rely on the inner critic to motivate to take action, but instead, it can inadvertently increase distress which makes failure more likely. This can lead to agitation, depression, and self-loathing.

Similarly, anxiety also can result from an imbalance in the drive and threat systems. The use of the drive system to avoid the unpleasant experience of anxiety may lead to short-term relief, but ultimately creates an increase in anxiety. Since avoidance cannot be maintained, the threat continues to ruminate in the mind, which results in triggering the threat system…again and again.

The imbalance of the threat and drive systems can really make us feel stuck if it is not regulated with the third system, the soothing system.

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Soothing System

Unlike the threat and drive systems that activate us, the soothing system is associated with tranquil states, feelings of safety, contentment, and peace. This system utilizes neurochemicals such as oxytocin and endorphins. Similar to the other two systems discussed, we enter this world hard-wired with the soothing system. It is connected to experiences of affection, care-giving/receiving, acceptance, support, and affiliation. Research suggests that the above-mentioned behaviors interfere with the negative effects of the threat and drive systems. Unfortunately, the soothing system can be affected by developmental history, especially histories that include painful interpersonal or emotional experiences (e.g., childhood trauma, rejection, lack of parental support). Fortunately, utilizing the soothing system more effectively can be a learned skill.

Regulating ourselves plays an instrumental role in promoting a sense of wellbeing throughout our life. Self-regulation can be defined as managing thoughts and feelings to enable goal-directed actions. Self-regulation becomes critical particularly during adolescents and young adulthood. Research has shown that major changes occur during early and mid-adolescence (i.e., 11-15 years). During this period of time, the systems that seek reward and process emotions are more developed than systems involved in decision-making and future planning. This means that self-regulation is developmentally challenging during this age range. Self-regulation skills that can be developed during adolescence include persisting on long-term projects, problem-solving to achieve goals, self-monitoring, making decisions with compassion for others, managing frustration, and seeking help when stress is unmanageable.

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How to develop self-regulation

Self-regulation develops and is learned through interaction with caregivers and the environment over the lifespan. Cognitive, emotional, and behavioral regulation skills can be learned. Effective interventions can strengthen and improve skills. Caregivers (including parents, teachers, and mentors) can teach self-regulation skills thought modeling, providing opportunities to practice skills, and reinforcing skill development. This can include coaching them on how, why, and when to use the regulation skills in complex situations.  Providing a warm responsive relationship where youth feel safe to make mistakes and learn to help them to navigate more challenging situations on their own. Structuring the environment to make self-regulation more manageable is also very helpful. This can involve limiting opportunities for risk-taking behaviors and allowing natural consequences for poor decisions. This supportive process between adults and youth is what is called co-regulation. Through warm and responsive interactions, co-regulation provides assistance and support for optimal self-regulation.

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Mind-body interventions can also assist in developing self-regulation. These interventions can include yoga, meditation, and martial arts. Mindfulness is also a technique that intentionally focuses attention on one’s emotions and thoughts in the present moment. Mindfulness utilizes acceptance of thoughts and feelings without judgment.

No matter what the avenue of self-regulation, the work toward balancing our systems is worth it.

Parent’s Navigation Guide to Healthy Teen Relationships

By: Bailey McAdams, M.Ed., LPC

As we approach Valentine’s Day, we generally think of our loved ones and begin our annual stress fest of what to buy them to “show our love.”  We often neglect to think of the health and well-being of the relationships themselves.  As a therapist that works with all ages, I am reminded of the benefits of learning healthy relationship boundaries and when to identify the unhealthy ones at the earliest ages.  As soon as we begin to develop romantic relationships and attachments with others, we should also be developing our awareness of healthy boundaries.  As teens, we are often so caught up in the butterflies and fireworks that we can easily overlook some unhealthy red flags.  I write this particular blog more for you parents of teens in hopes that you may educate them on healthy boundaries and have early interventions for the more concerning red flags the healthy steps to take.

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Healthy boundaries to talk to your teens about:

  • Highlight the role of respect. For this particular generation respect should occur in the way that we speak to one another, the way we respond to physical interaction, how we speak ABOUT one another, and probably most importantly how we interact on social media or via text.  For example, someone who requests inappropriate pictures is not demonstrating healthy respect for the other individual.  Parents:  It is important to talk through with your teen appropriate ways to handle when respect has not been shown.  Be a good listener and supporter, but ultimately help them to work through.
  • Teach your teen to label their feelings. Growing up talking about your feelings at home promotes the same behavior outside of the home.  Learning that it is okay to have feelings and that they will be supported and heard is vital to the health of any relationship.

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  • Encourage your teen to pay attention to their instincts. If you feel that something isn’t quite right, odds are it isn’t. As adults, we may call these “red flags.”  Too often we ignore red flags in an effort to “make it work” often to our detriment.
  • Encourage your teen to own their own “stuff.” All too often we may get sucked into the drama and lives of others and make our decisions solely based upon the impact of the other person.  While this is thoughtful, we are forgetting to think of one person… ourselves!  This is not selfish; this is setting a healthy boundary.  Sometimes we may do something that feels like too much for us to handle in an effort to take care of someone else.  When we take care of others in place of ourselves, it may leave us feeling resentful or as though our feelings are not important.
  • Remember we train others how to treat us. I probably say this daily in my counseling sessions with people of all ages.  This means if you have boundaries, people will learn that you do and are not as likely to take advantage of us.  Also, it reminds us to listen to the boundaries of others.  How can we ask for something we are not also willing to provide?
  • Parents: You are their example! Try to practice these tips yourself and they will learn from you.

Resources to check out: www.loveisrespect.org and https://www.breakthecycle.org/blog/setting-boundaries-relationship

 

A New Look at Resolutions

By: Daniel Mark, M.S

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Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time. – Mark Twain

Many people chose to make New Year’s resolutions, such as lose weight, eat better, quit smoking, watch less TV, exercise more, be kinder, save money, etc. These resolutions come from a good place: someone wants to make a change in their life, and they use the start of a new year as a turning point. So gyms are joined, junk food/alcohol/cigarettes are thrown out, salad green fly off the shelves, treadmills are purchased, new books are added to the kindle, old acquaintances are un-forgot, and so on. However, as the weeks (or days) wear on, many of us slip back into our old patterns. By the time a few months have passed Goodwill and Craigslist are chock full of gently used items, gyms have emptied out, exercise equipment has become clothes hangers, and many of our old patterns have crept back in.

This may lead you to ask- what gives? What happens to our motivation? Why do so many resolutions go to the wayside? Well when we are talking about making real change in our lives, the desire or motivation to change is just the first step. This is not to downplay their importance. Often it takes us a long time to build up the motivation needed to make significant changes in our lives. However, most resolutions are made in a way that makes it hard to succeed! When we set goals for ourselves, there are several steps we can take to improve our chances of being able to follow through.

  1. Get Specific: What exactly is the goal? Eating better could mean many different things- fewer calories, more fiber, fewer animal products… Getting into shape could be getting stronger, running faster, dropping body fat percentage, etc. When we set ambiguous goals like this, it becomes difficult to know when we reach them. Make sure your goal is clear to you.
  2. Set up the steps: What is it going to take to reach your goal? What are the little pieces that are going to fit together to make the bigger picture? This can include deciding how often or how much each step will be. For example, going to the library to read for one hour three times a week.
  3. Track your progress: Ask yourself “How could an outside observer see the change?” Try to set up concrete or quantifiable ways of measuring your progress.
  4. Anticipate challenges: Often times our old habits developed for a reason. There are things in our lives that push us towards our old habits. Think about what is going to stand in your way and start making plans! If you want to watch less TV, what is going to replace that time? If you are cutting back on drinking, how will you respond when offered alcohol? Further, anticipate setbacks! Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. We have to build in flexibility when planning in order to increase our success. Ordering dessert after one dinner doesn’t have to mean the diet is over. After setbacks, we have to revisit our motivation for change and figure out how we can set our selves up for better success in the future.
  5. Add motivation: Changing our habits is not easy! Add incentives or ways of keeping yourself motivated along the way. How could you celebrate your 20th trip to the gym or 2 weeks without a cigarette? You know yourself best, so come up with ways to celebrate your successful steps.
  6. Be reasonable: It can be very tempting to reach for the stars when setting a goal. But the bigger the goal, the longer it is going to take. If your goal is to lose weight, think about how long it took to put the weight on. Something like training for a marathon takes months, not just weeks.
  7. Get support: We all get by with a little help from our friends. Is there a way to get your friends/family/coworkers on board with helping you reach your goals? Maybe they know better than to offer you a cookie. Having a gym/reading/diet buddy can help keep you accountable.

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At the end of the day, it is great that you want to make improvements in your life! If you follow these steps, you can set yourself up to meet your new goals. If you are interested in learning more about setting goals, North Texas Counseling Associates is going to publish more on making changes in our lives in the upcoming weeks. Finally, if you think you need help finding motivation or setting up a plan for your success, you can meet with one of the many different therapists at North Texas Counseling Associates who can help you along the way!

The Power of Gratitude

By: Kaitlin Cross, MA, LPC-Intern

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The Power of Gratitude

With the holidays quickly approaching, I am reminded of the importance of gratitude. Research shows the benefits of practicing gratitude are nearly endless. Robert Emmons, psychologist and author of Thanks!: How the Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, states several advantages to practicing gratitude including:

  • Gratitude allows us to be in the present moment
  • Gratitude blocks toxic emotions
  • Grateful people are more resilient to stress
  • Grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth

However, gratitude doesn’t need to be reserved only for momentous occasions. Sure, it’s easy to be reminded to be grateful during the holidays, or big accomplishments, but one could show gratitude for something as small as someone opening the door for them, a compliment, or saying thank you.

When practicing gratitude, it is so easy to look only inward, on what personally makes us thankful. However, gratitude can also be spread to others through our actions. This could be to your loved ones, children, friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, or even complete strangers! With that, I thought it would be helpful to highlight some easy ways for you and your family to incorporate gratitude, both as a personal practice and to spread the power of gratitude to others!

  1. Notice and delight in the small stuff
    • By pausing to notice and take in little things throughout the day, such as a sunset or appreciating a stranger that held the door for you, you’ll feel more appreciative.
  2. Write a gratitude letter to someone
    • Take some time to sit down with your child and write a gratitude letter to a family member or other individual. Don’t worry about it being perfect, state it straight from the heart. You and your child might not just make someone’s day but impact their overall life.
  3. Keep a gratitude journal
    • Listing out 3-5 things you are grateful for and share with others once in a while.
  4. Meditate/ Pray
    • Maintain a daily practice of mindfulness or prayer.
  5. Look for the positive in frustrating situations and discuss it
    • Take time after difficult situations and discuss what benefits or gains may be taken from the situation. Often mistakes are the biggest opportunities for growth.
  6. Look for awe-inspiring moments throughout the day
    • Even something small, could add a positive to your day.
  7. Make a gratitude jar
    • Obtain a physical jar and write on individual slips what you are grateful for, add to it throughout the year, and reread them towards the end.

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  1. Share your gratitude at bedtime
    • Spend 5 minutes before bed thinking or asking what you or your family what you are most thankful for.
  2. Share your gratitude at the dinner table
    • During the meal, spend time by going around and state what you are grateful for.
  3. Compliment others
    • Provide a kind comment or observation about someone.
  4. Keep it positive on social media
    • While we all are aware of the negative effects of social media, the fact is most of us are involved on one type of platform. With that, why not use it as a podium to spread gratitude? When you see an inspirational quote or uplifting post, share it, send it privately to a friend, or tag your loved ones.
  5. Make a vow to practice gratitude.
    • Research shows that making a pledge to perform a behavior increases the likelihood that the action will occur. Therefore, writing your own gratitude vow could encourage you to continue your daily practice. It could simply be “I vow to count my blessings every day,” and post it somewhere where you will be reminded of it each day.
  6. Participate in a random act of kindness
    • Treat someone to a coffee, buy a lunch for someone in need, give someone your aisle seat on an airplane, donate to a community shelter or organization. The opportunities are never-ending!

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  1. Volunteer to help others
    • Getting out in the community an easy way to show people their wellbeing matters to you. Whether you’re volunteering at a school, hospital, foodbank, community storehouse, or participating in a fundraiser to support a charity, you’re getting out there for a good cause and inspiring others to do the same! Those on the receiving end of your efforts will be so appreciative of the time and energy you spent to help them.
  2. Smile!
    • Finally, one of the quickest, easiest way to increase gratitude both in yourself and others. By smiling your brain releases endorphins, making you feel happy and less stressed, and also spreading kindness naturally to others.

 

Here are some additional gratitude prompts to help get you started:

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This month, I hope we’ve inspired you to not only practice gratitude within but to also spread gratitude to family, friends, and complete strangers. We, here at North Texas Counseling Associates, want to express our gratitude to you all for letting us offer support to you and your loved ones each and everyday!

School Stress SOS

By: Bailey McAdams, M.ED., LPC

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Signs, Symptoms, and Strategies

As this school year kicked off, I am reminded that never before in the 15 years I have been a counselor, have I seen so many stressed out kids.  I am currently seeing more and more children and adolescents with symptoms of anxiety and depression related to school stress than any other diagnosis.  One of the primary difficulties in identifying this is that it looks so very different in every child that I see.  As a result, the stress often goes untreated or supported until it has manifested itself into something much bigger.  So… I thought it would be helpful to highlight some of the signs to look for so that parents and educators can be a part of the prevention of anxiety and depression vs. intervention/putting out fires’ mode.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Difficulty with sleep either initiating or sustaining. It is important to assess when the behavior began.  If it seemed to have increased since the beginning of school, that is a clear indicator that school stress is a factor.  Some children just require less sleep or are sleep avoiders any old time, not just when school is in session.  That may be related to something all together different.  I saw a meme over the summer that rang so true for me as both a parent and a clinician, “The number one cause of dehydration in children is bedtime”.  This made me laugh but is so very true.  Some of these behaviors can be seeking to delay bed time in an effort to hold off the following school day.
  • Changes in appetite-You may observe they are either eating significantly more or significantly less related to the beginning of school or with an increase in school related assignments. Often times stress can suppress an individual’s appetite; however the dopamine hit that we receive when we eat certain snacks or foods can lead to mindless overeating as a negative coping tool.
  • School refusal behaviors
    • Somatic complaints to get out of going to school (headache, stomachache, “I’m sick”).
    • Separation anxiety is either heightened or out of character for the child.
    • Additional out of character behaviors for your child (ie: withdrawal from peers, conduct issues at school, refusal to go to school/participate in school)
    • Frequent reports of negative events occurring at school. (Bullies, negative interactions with authority figures, few positive reports)
  • Gastrointestinal complaints with no physical explanation. (Also could be a school refusal behavior)
  • Extreme emotional responses. If you notice that your child or teen is “over reacting” or you feel that they are crying over something that you may consider “small” this may be an indicator that they are heightened in their emotions.  An example for a young child might be crying because you are out of milk.  Hint:  It’s not about the milk.

 Strategies

Here are a few of my favorites for any age:

  • Calm down jar: Take a used water bottle, fill it up most of the way with warm water, and add glitter glue, loose glitter, and food coloring to your heart’s desire. Super glue the lid to secure the contents.  Encourage your child or teen or even yourself to shake it as hard as you can and then watch all of the contents calmly float to the bottom.  Take slow deep breaths as you watch.  Check out the YouTube video “Just Breathe” by Julie Bayer Salzman and Josh Salzman as a supportive tool for this exercise.
  • Take 5 Breathing: Spread the fingers of one hand into a fan and place it on your leg or a table. Using your index finger of the other hand, trace your fanned hand.  As you trace up, breathe in through your nose, as your trace down, breathe out through your mouth.  Your child will notice that inside their inner fingers feels sensitive which provides both a sensory/grounding and relaxation benefit.
  • Processing Outlets: Draw or write your feelings then tear them up and throw them away. We are not meant to keep or commemorate the things that hurt or stress us.  It is a good way to take charge of our feelings and provide ourselves with a good outlet.
  • Grounding/Mindfulness: Use your 5 senses to connect to what is actually going on around you, literally in the room you are in vs. where your thoughts/fears/worries decide to take you.  Ask yourself what you can feel? What does it feel like? What do I hear? What can I see that I haven’t really noticed before? What do I smell? Take a drink of water? What does it feel like or taste like?
  • Resources:
    • “Anxiety Workbook for Teens” by Lisa M. Schab (ages 13+)
    • “The Mindfulness Skills Activity Book for Children” by Chris Willard, PsyD and Mitch Abblett, PhD. (ages 7+)
    • “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids” by Lawrence E. Shapiro, PhD. and Robin K. Sprague, LCPC (ages 10+)
    • “Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life for Kids” by Jennifer J. Solin, PhD. and Christina L. Kress, MSW (ages 7-12)
    • “How Do You Doodle” by Elisa Grave (ages 7+)
    • “Hello, Happy!” by Dr. Sharie Coombes (ages 7+)

It is always helpful to know that when this stress impairs your child’s ability to function in day to day life, it may be beneficial to speak with their pediatrician or primary care physician and consult a Licensed Professional Counselor.  A benefit to your child receiving care from a counselor is that they receive support and coping strategies and you receive a support network where you can learn parenting tools including how to talk with them about their stress and assist them with implementing their tools.  Who knows, your stress may be reduced as a result.  Win! Win!