Saturday, November 19, 2016

Finding Calm in Times of Stress

In times of change and uncertainty, it serves us well to stop business as usual and take time out to re-calibrate. Tune into what we’re feeling and needing. Without this break, we can get stuck. Unable to fully process or digest the current change, we can’t move forward effectively.

Many of us deny ourselves this time to slow down and instead speed up. In a frantic effort to avoid dealing with what’s going on under the surface, we throw ourselves into our work or routines even harder. This strategy ultimately wears us down until things surface in some avoidable crisis.

Alternately, we can hit pause. Deliberately reconnect with ourselves. Retreating to where you feel safe is not an act of cowardice but a wise step toward emerging stronger, more resolved, resilient, and better equipped to handle whatever comes next head on.

When we are able to rest and restore, we don’t have to re-experience, react, or accidentally create new problems. We can emerge replenished and walk confidently in our desired direction, trusting that we know where we stand and possess the necessary tools and insights.

How can you take a break this holiday season? Where and who are your safe places? How do you find calm? What can you let yourself off of the hook for to allow yourself time to reset? Remember, when stress gets you stuck, calm deliberate action is what helps you find a path out.

"Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished."
-Lao Tzu

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Gender Identity 101

Exploring one's gender identity and expression are part of my practice. Many of my clients are well-versed in the terms of gender identity. This post is not for them. It's for their friends and loved ones who might be struggling to understand their experience. 

Today, I will offer a basic understanding of what it means to be trans and/or non-binary as well as guidance for you, the loved one...

Let's start with the beginning. The T in LGBT stands for transgender (trans). Transgender refers to experiencing a mis-match between one's felt gender and the gender one was assigned at birth. The opposite of this is cisgender. I'm cisgender. The gender I was assigned at birth, female, fits with my perceived gender identity. For someone who is trans, this is not the case. 

Now, this is the foundation- and there are many trans identities.

Gender is a deeply personal experience and none of us are exactly alike. Let's look at some of the identities under the so-called trans umbrella... 

One of those is non-binaryNon-binary refers to an experience that doesn't conform to or transcends conventional notions of male or female gender. Agender and gender fluid are two examples of non-binary identities (I encourage you to explore the Gender Wiki I have linked to throughout this paragraph for further reading about the many varied and emerging gender identities). 

Bottom line: allow people to share how they identify rather than make assumptions. Get more support from LGBT affirmative and gender therapists such as myself. We're here to provide support one-on-one, for couples, and families. 

A few more key points about gender identity:
  • Gender identity is distinct from sexuality. People who are trans, cis, and non-binary experience varied identities and sexualities (the two are not correlated).
  • A person's understanding of their gender identity might grow and change over time. There are many reasons for this, one of them being transphobia (the very real threat of violence that keeps people "in the closet"- even to themselves).
  • In terms of pronouns, they/them is coming into favor for a lot of non-binary folks because it's gender neutral (in fact, singular they was declared the 2015 word of the year).
And, guidance for you:
  • Understanding your loved one's identity is a process. Just as it took your loved one time to come to terms with who they are, you'll need time, too.
  • It's normal to experience a sense of loss- which includes denial, anger, fear, and many other mixed emotions- when you learn the news. This changes over time.
  • Educating yourself about trans issues shows interest in your loved one's experience and will help understand them better. This is an opportunity to become closer.
There is a lot more we could discuss about gender identity- such as transitioning (whole other cup of "T" so to speak)!- but my goal here is to keep it simple. There will be time for more information. I hope you found this "Gender Identity 101" post to be helpful. 

Want to read more about trans issues? Here are a few sites for your consideration:

Monday, February 1, 2016

What to Say When Someone Comes Out

When a friend or loved one comes out to you as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, it can bring up a lot! You want to react in a supportive way but aren't sure how, you have your own questions or concerns about what it means, and you may be surprised- to name a few possible inner reactions. Not to worry. 

Someone wants you to know them better and trusts and values you enough to take this step to being more open with you. Breathe that in. It's a good thing that someone wants to be seen for who they are in your eyes! 

Here's how to respond in a way that is accepting and supportive:
1. Be a matter of fact. A gentle nod, smile, or other nonverbal response of acknowledgment works great. This conveys that people can be themselves with you without having to "take care of" you- or your over-reactions. 
2. Be appreciative. Follow up with a quick, "Thank you so much for sharing that with me" and move on. This communicates that you value the opportunity to know them better but leaves them in control of how much they choose to share with you.

--> These ideas are offered with the idea that the person coming out to you is a friend or acquaintance. If it's someone closer to you, you may want to make your interest and acceptance in the person more explicit with a phrase like, "I want to know more" or "Tell me more." And, directly sharing that "I love you no matter what" never hurts. :)

It can also be useful to look at what not to do.

These reactions, whatever the intention, are hurtful:
1. Offering doom and gloom. "That's the worst thing you could have told me. I would have rather you said you were _____." It's important that your worries and fears be worked through but process them later with someone else.
2. Questioning the person's identity. "Well, I don't think you're _____. Are you sure?" The time to contemplate your questions is not with this person.

Remember, if things don't go as you'd hoped or planned, there will always be another chance to talk. The most important thing is to be your self- just as your friend is doing with you! 

I hope that you found this post helpful. Thankfully, we're not defined by any one response at any given moment in time. Rather, we share ourselves slowly through many interactions over time as we grow and change together. No one's as simple as a stereotype- including you!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Why Women and Trauma?

"Why do you want to work with women and trauma?" is a question I get asked. In graduate school, a professor once said, "I could never work with victims (of intimate partner violence)." And, I get it (I think). What I believe people are getting at is that it's tough.

There are easier things to work with than violence against women- but it's many of our reality. So, the questions I'm more interested in answering are: Why is being a woman a risk factor for developing PTSD? *Why do women experience nearly twice the rates of anxiety, depression, and PTSD as men? Where we go from here, I believe, lies in the answer to these and other questions. 

Let's look at the why... According to the Veteran's Administration (VA), half of women will experience a traumatic event. Half. The most common traumatic events in our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and friends lives (about one in three of us experience this) are sexual assault and child sexual abuse. Outraged? Good! It's is a healthy reaction to this reality. 

Now, here are 3 things you can do, now, to help channel that anger into a better world:
1. When we say that we or someone we know well as been impacted by violence against women, believe it. Having our experience questioned or belittled from the jump does not build trust and safety. We need to start from a place of inner safety to begin to talk about things.
2. Understand why women are more than twice as likely as men to experience PTSD, anxiety, and depression- and then help change it. The VA suggests women are more likely to blame ourselves. Raising our girls to know their worth and not to take on other people's problems, then, is key.
3. Keep asking questions- but ask effective questions. Instead of: Why didn't she leave? Is it really that bad? Or, why work with women and trauma? Ask: Why do people assault and abuse others?  What can be done about it? And, how can I help the women in my life feel safer?

*The binary view of gender found in my online research and expressed here (limited to women and men) doesn't match many peoples' experience of gender as more fluid; this warrants a longer blog post so check back, soon!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Coping with College Anxiety

Ah, college... A time of working hard and playing hard, learning who you really are as you fall in love, choose a career path, and post selfies on Facebook documenting it all. First "real" relationships, jobs, and other "adult" accomplishments. Striking out on your own and breaking just enough rules to forge a confident stable self-identity... If this description doesn't sound like your college experience, you're not alone. 

College is not the best chapter of everyone's life. In fact, this time of life when many serious behavioral health conditions appear can be the hardest one has experienced. When this is the case- when college is extremely challenging for you- the disparity between where you are and where you feel you "should" be makes things even worse. And, the many mixed messages college students receive about what constitutes the "right" decisions don't help either. So, what's a college student to do? 

First, let's consider some statistics about today's college students. The American College Health Association's Spring 2015 Reference Group Executive Summary, which states that it is "the largest known comprehensive data set on the health of college students," reflects a harsh reality. Consider these figures, describing students' past 12 months:
  • 74%, of college women don't feel "very safe" on their campus at nighttime
  • 22% of college women and 17% of college men "felt things were hopeless" 
  • 22% of college women and 20% of college men "felt very lonely" 
  • 48% of college women and 38% of college men reported "academics" had "been traumatic or very difficult to handle" 
  • 31% of college women and 27% of college men reported "intimate relationships" had "been traumatic or very difficult to handle"
  • 29% of college women and 17% of college men reported "personal appearance" had "been traumatic or very difficult to handle"
Add to this image the statistic that many of us are aware of, that 1 in 4 college women experience sexual abuse or assault (which many allege is an underreport), and you have a pretty grim picture... 

Now, take a deep breath because... there's hope! It gets better! There are things that we can do. Becoming aware of an issue allows you to get help, which means feeling better faster. Sometimes this looks like getting a mental health diagnosis and prescription medications from a psychiatrist. Sometimes it's talk therapy. Counseling is available on and off campus and provides a safe and confidential space where you can discuss what's going on. A primary goal of therapy will be to come up with new skills and confidence that you can take with you in your daily life in the classroom and beyond to live the life you want.

Many counselors, including myself, are here to assist college age clients with:
  • social and classroom anxiety 
  • body image and self-esteem
  • depression and loneliness
  • accessing academic support services
  • relationship conflict
I also assist clients of all sexualities and gender identities with issues of coming out and other lgbt concerns. 

If college has been difficult for you or someone you know, I hope you will find reassurance in the fact that you're not alone and perhaps for you the best is yet to come. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Celebrating the B in LGBT!

A lot has been written (like this piece and this piece) about biphobia, lately. And, for good reason! It might surprise folks to know that people who identify as bisexual or bi experience the worst mental health outcomes among people who are lesbian, gay, and bisexual. But, why? Why haven't we heard more about it? And, why don't we know more bisexual folks in our personal and professional lives? 

The answer lies in the fact that people who are bi face a high level of prejudice. The so-called double stigma facing people who are bi includes experiencing social rejection not only from the larger heterosexual society but from within the LGBT community, as well. Common reactions folks experience upon coming out as bi include having their sexuality questioned ("so, you're gay/straight, now?" depending on the gender identity of their current partner) and being labeled as "confused" or even "selfish" for not "making up their minds." Is it any wonder, then, that most of the bisexual community (if we can call such a fragmented invisible group that!) chooses not to come out?

The cost of remaining in the closet is high. We all need to be seen for who we are and our mental health suffers when we cannot. It's traumatic to feel as if who we are is wrong or bad. And, we all suffer when so many of us don't feel safe enough to share who we are with each other. So, what do we do about all this? Let's end biphobia by celebrating all sexualities- especially bisexuality! Because we all want the same thing- to be happy, which involves loving and being loved in return.

When someone comes out to you, trust their words. Respond with a, "thank you so much for sharing with me!" And, even if you don't see many examples of happy, healthy, and out bisexuality out there, trust that you know yourself. I tend to agree with the old saying, "even the most difficult truth is better than living a lie." But, safety comes first. You and only you know how "out" you wish to be. Whatever you decide and to the extent that you are able, I invite you to join in celebrating yourself and others because of who they are. The world is a richer place when we can be ourselves in it.