Bursting Some Common Myths About Pastoral Counseling
Frequently I'm asked about what a pastoral counselor is. Many folks are familiar with psychologists and social workers but pastoral counseling is less well understood. (Maybe that's because the relative number of clinicians who have the extensive training to become a pastoral counselor is small in comparison to the number of other kinds of therapists,) Although clergy are the folks most people trust to talk problems over with, the profession of pastoral counseling is fraught with myths and misunderstanding. To increase understanding, here are some common myths that need to be burst.
1. Pastoral Counselors aren’t real psychotherapists.
Many people think that professional pastoral counselors are just clergy persons who offer advice or are someone with whom to talk. While many do talk to their rabbis, priests , ministers or imams, pastoral counselors are professionals who are trained in theology and psychotherapy and who function in a specialized ministry of counseling. Their psychotherapeutic training is extensive and exceeds that of most other counseling degrees and also includes personal psychotherapy for each counselor as part of his or her training.
2. You have to be "religious" to see a pastoral counselor
While many who come to pastoral counselors come from a religious background or belong to a faith community, many others do not. Pastoral counseling embraces a holistic and inclusive perspective and is not guided by any particular theological doctrine or belief. While it may offer insight from the sacred texts of the world’s great religions, it also may borrow from literature, movies or even television shows to illumine a discovery. The perspective of pastoral counseling integrates a psychological understanding with the spiritual dimension of life. It is not only concerned with pathology or illness but is also committed to helping folks cope and find transcendent meaning in the midst of tragedy and loss.
3. You can’t really be yourself around a pastoral counselor.
Some worry that you have to watch your language when talking to a pastoral counselor or that you can’t talk about sex or other embarrassing topics. Many folks initially feel that they have to be careful when talking to a pastoral counselor in the same way they would with any clergy person. As they get to know their counselor, it becomes obvious that they can relax because the pastoral counselor is not there to judge or uphold any particular religious doctrine. The role of the pastoral counselor is to accept, understand and empathize with caring and concern. As trust develops, as with any other counselor, a person feels free to spontaneously express whatever is on his or her mind.
4. Pastoral Counselors can’t keep it real because they’re ministers and have to be proper.
Likewise, some worry that a pastoral counselor cannot understand because there is something that becoming a minister does that separates them from everyday human experience.
Not true. Pastoral counselors are married and divorced and have kids and experience the same emotions and suffer the same kinds of problems as anyone else. Indeed, being real (not pretend) for both client and counselor is what is needed for a successful therapy experience. What they offer, however, is a special perspective which is informed by the sacred texts and stories from the great religious traditions as well as from great literature and popular contemporary sources as well. Stories, whether they come from the Bible or Seinfeld have a way of illustrating human truth and providing a sense of purpose and meaning which goes beyond an immediate difficulty or fear.
Here is the bottom line: Pastoral counselors are able to use psychological tools as well as spiritual understanding to help folks heal from past trauma, recover from present emotional disorders or grapple with questions about the ultimate meaning of their lives.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C.
Thanksgiving: A Time for Regaining Perspective and ,for some, Conflict
Thanksgiving is here again and with it comes a flood of feelings and memories. This is a special and complicated celebration which congers up images of feasting and family get-togethers. Along with the delicious food and being with friends and relatives, Thanksgiving is also a time for personal reflection and putting life into perspective.
Historically, we remember the hardships endured by the early colonists and their religious faith which sustained them through the worst of times. Even after all of their suffering, their spirit found it possible to give thanks to God for surviving and enduring.
As a national holiday, Thanksgiving stands as a symbol of the positive American spirit which proclaims that, no matter how difficult things may have been, there are good times and blessings for which to be thankful.
Emotionally, rediscovering the gratitude, which may have been lost in the wake of hardship, is an important spiritual experience and expression of faith. Thanksgiving is a symbolic ritual of affirmation and confidence about the ultimate nature of life, i.e., that when all is said and done, the good in life outweighs the bad. Thanksgiving expresses a leap of faith that believes that the cosmos has a greater and essentially a beneficent purpose for its inhabitants.
Ironically, this joyous time can also be a time of heartache and interpersonal conflict. The Norman Rockwell painting which we all would like to experience is, sadly, not part of what many families experience. Family gatherings where relatives , who normally live apart, get together can be the occasion of arguments and emotional tension. Wounds from the past can be reopened and intense pain and longstanding problems and disputes can be rejoined.
For those who dread this gathering, here are some tips to reduce your anxiety and help you get through the day.
1. Think ahead. What part of the family experience is most difficult for you ? Be specific and understand when and where it occurs. Ask yourself questions like , "Who is involved ?" and "How does the stressful moment develop ?". Knowing these trigger can help you to avoid them.
2. Shake things up. Don't get caught in the same old rut. Imagine how you might approach and do things differently to avoid repeating the same old problems. Pay attention to where you sit or who you stand next to. Think about topics to avoid or changing the subject when toxic issues appear.
3. Know your own body. Emotional distress starts in the body with muscular tension. Know where your "organ of distress" is ( e.g. you stomach , back, chest or throat, or jaw etc.) When it acts up, understand that you still have some time to remove yourself from the situation before getting upset.
4. Don't get sucked into impossible conversations or arguments. Don’t engage in conversations you know are going to end badly. Remove yourself from a situation which is getting uncomfortable before things get ugly.
5. Talk things over with your partner ahead of time. Let your partner know what your concerns are and have an escape plan. Also let the kids know about it ahead of time and ... don't be afraid to use it.
A little planning can take away much of the stress of family gatherings and free you up to enjoy the spirit of this special time, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone !
Rev. Michael Heath LMHC , Fellow A.A.P.C.
Dealing With Political Grief
Recently, nationwide protests against president-elect Trump demonstrate that there are a lot of unhappy people in our country. This level of frustration was inevitable, no matter who won, since the campaigns were so hotly contested. When you add in the fact that the winner of the popular vote will not be the next president, it is understandable why so many folks are upset.
Professionally, I have received calls from clients who were distraught by the election results. It is important to note that one does not have to have a psychological disorder to be disturbed by an election's outcome. What many are going through is an instance of political grieving, i.e. a normal psychological response to loss and frustrated expectations. Grief often involves painful and contradictory emotions and thoughts such as obsessing about the loss or unrealistically denying it altogether. At other times there is great sadness and despair as well as confusion and fierce anger.
We understand grief when it is connected with an unexpected or unwanted loss as in death or divorce but there are other kinds of grief experiences as well. Recently, Cleveland Indian fans went through a difficult loss in the World Series and at some level experienced grief. When our political candidate loses, however the loss is more serious. Psychologically, we experience pain when our team or candidate loses because we identify with them. They symbolically represent something important about us. When they win, we win. When they lose, we lose and we lose a part of our self-identity.
The key to working through grief and to feeling better is a two-fold process of first dis-identifying from the lost part of yourself and then re-identifying with and appreciating other positive parts of yourself, your life and your reality which have been overlooked. In other words, it is a process of realizing that that there are other important parts to your life besides the part that you lost.
Here are some tips to keep in mind if you're feeling stuck.
1. Remember, there is much more to you and your life than what was lost in your recent disappointment. The temporary depression which accompanies grief has a way of narrowing your perspective to the point that you can lose touch with or forget to appreciate some of the other blessings in your life.
2. The pain of loss is temporary. Political identification cuts a little deeper than sports loyalties and is more substantive, but the pain will go away. In this past election, where the differences between the two candidates were so extreme, it is understandable why the loss feels so bad. This horrible place doesn't last forever.
3. It is important to express your feelings and not hold them in. Talking with trusted friends or writing in a confidential journal are good ways to process upset feelings no matter what they are.
4. Don't worry about being "negative or having angry thoughts. They are normal and will pass.
5. Don't be in a rush to be positive. You may hear from friends that being negative will make you bitter or that you must quickly forgive and forget. Nonsense! Your process is uniquely yours and is influenced by your prior experience with loss and disappointment.
6. Think about losses you have had in the past and how you dealt with them. What worked. What didn't. Sometimes the unresolved or unhealed pain from the past can intensify the pain you feel in the present. Being able to distinguish past from present can help relieve the intensity of your grief.
7. Limit your exposure to the media concerning distressful stories and reports. If you feel like avoiding the news for a while, that is OK. If you begin to feel upset while listening to a program, turn it off and do something which is relaxing. You don't have to totally avoid the media but just like a radiologist, it is important to self-monitor your exposure. Whether in conversations or watching TV or being online, if you pay attention to your body and listen to your emotions, you will know when you have had enough and need to take a break.
8. Realize that life is an ongoing process of change and change, even positive change is anxiety producing. It is important to understand that change can also bring new and unexpected surprises which lead to personal growth and fulfillment.
9. Finally, if your upset symptoms persist and impair your life, it is good to seek help from your doctor or therapist.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C.
image from Sun UK: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2146110/clinton-supporters-weep-as-trump-becomes-us-president/
Explaining the Facebook Study: Turns out cyber friends are important, too.
In a recent study it turns out that Facebook users live longer than those who don't. If that sounds strange, there may be a good reason. It is all about having friends.
While it is true that having a Facebook friend that you interact with via the internet is not exactly the same as having as having an actual in-the-flesh person that you talk to or go to lunch with, nonetheless, psychologically, it may provide some of the same emotional components.
If you recall, a little while back we talked about the medical and emotional benefits of friendship, i.e. how having good friends was good for you physically as well as emotionally. Researchers believe that Facebook and other social media have become new platforms on which friendships and important social interaction can be built.
The factor which Facebook provides is a sense of acceptance and being “liked “. While the feedback is different via the internet than it is in everyday life, the feedback is direct and immediate. Instead of seeing a smile or receiving a pat on the back, FB records and counts “likes” and comments.
Being affirmed and affirming others is an important part of being in a friendship and is a critical factor which is missing from folks who are isolated and do not have friends. Indeed isolation is a factor in emotional disorders which also correlate to physiological problems. Although it is different and more limited, technology has provided a new medium through which friendship can be experienced.
Obviously, cyber relationships are not equivalent to nor do they provide all of the aspects of in person one, however they do offer another avenue through which social connection can be found and felt.
It is fair to say that while Facebook and social media can pose problems for users, they also offer opportunities for lonely people to reach out and connect. With common and reasonable caution, Facebook can be resource for expanding one’s sense of belonging and finding approval.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC , Fellow A.A.P.C. 11 2 2016
Beyond Romantic Myths: 9 Tips for Getting real about what it takes to have a great marriage.
I recently listened to a fascinating program on Diane Rehm’s show about what we know about love, attraction and what makes a great marriage. Here are nine tips which express the current consensus of what it takes to have a great marriage:
1. Takes some time before you marry. Your brain isn't fully developed until the age of 25 and research shows that the older one is when s/he marries, the happier the marriage will be.
2. Toss out the romantic myths. Love is not fundamentally an erotic or romantic feeling. It is a mature concern and desire for the wellbeing of your mate. ( Just like Paul said in Corinthians 13) .
3. Develop Realistic Expectations. There is no "perfect" person or perfect relationship. Great relationships may also have serious problems. Thus, the key to having a great marriage is not about finding the “right” person or expecting that that a great relationship should be problem free. It is important to understand that not only is no one perfect but … everyone has emotional wounds which complicate and make intimate relations difficult.
4. Become aware of each other’s unreasonable reactions. A major source of marital discord is the clashing of unconscious and exaggerated reactions which come about in the wake of frustration or disappointment. These irrational responses were formed in the wake of trauma, usually in childhood. As such, it is necessary to identify them and understand how they are triggered.
A mutual understanding and acceptance of each other’s history of emotional wounds and the relational distortions that these wounds have created (e.g. difficulty trusting, forgiving or controlling destructive impulses) can go a long way in preventing irrational and unpleasant confrontations.
5. Replace emotional reactions with reasonable responses. What make a relationship satisfying and durable is knowing how to and then being able to deal with intense emotional problems in a constructive and reasonable way.
6. Great relationships are not natural and do not just happen. Thus it is vital for couples to reach a mutual understanding of each other’s issues requires effort. Specifically, the work which needs to be done involves increasing empathy and acceptance of your own and your partner’s struggles.
7. Make a commitment to healing each other’s childhood wounds,( i.e. to understanding the perceptional and response distortions created by past trauma) and to gaining a wider perspective and awareness of how each other’s unresolved issues create conflict between them.
8. Learn fundamental communication and impulse control skills In addition to consciousness raising, each partner must learn some basic skills such as how to empathically listen and to speak clearly and directly. Also both must develop the ability to control destructive/ emotional impulses such as anger or the need to control. Dysfunctional reactions must be replaced them with constructive / reasonable responses.
9. Finally, it is important to understand that love and intimacy is not a fixed or static thing. If the effort is made, love and intimacy grow throughout your life together. If necessary, marital therapy can help not only those couples whose relationships are in trouble but also those who want to improve the level of their marital satisfaction.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. 10 19 2016
* With acknowledgment for image to : http://www.goodmorningquote.com/sweet-love-words-romantic-images/
Why Mental Health Check-Ups Are a Good Idea
Everyone knows that seeing your doctor on regular basis for a check-up is a good idea. Periodic physical exams are a good way to identify conditions early. Catching a problem early is better than waiting until it has become bigger and more complicated. Well, the same is true for mental health.
Unfortunately, many folks don’t think about their mental health when they go for their physicals. But fortunately more and more doctors are beginning to include mental health screenings for such things as anxiety, depression, trauma and stress disorders as part of their routine examinations.
In addition to a doctor’s protocol, it is important for patients to understand that mental health issues are fundamentally connected to their physical health and to include their emotional health when thinking about their overall wellness.
Specifically, it is important for a folks to be mindful of any significant changes in their life that have occurred since their last visit which may be affecting their mood or overall happiness.
Here are some specific areas to pay attention to:
1. Significant losses or additions to one’s life. For example the death of a friend or relative or the birth of a child are changes which can result in grief reactions or increases stress.
2. Less attention to self-care. Normal stress and especially increased stress require good self-care and stress management to cope successfully. Unfortunately, when we experience increased demands or difficulties, it is common to neglect both physical and emotional self-care needs.
3. Unusual changes in sleep, appetite, energy levels ,mood or social connectedness. Increased stress and emotional disorders often present with these common symptoms. Like with medical issues, the earlier an emotional problem is identified, the easier it is to treat.
So, if you have noticed that you’ve been having problems sleeping or you’ve lost or have an increase in your appetite or you that you’ve been feeling more depressed or anxious or irritable over an extended period of time ( two weeks), don’t ignore it. Give your doctor a call. A visit or two may be all that is needed to help restore things back to normal. Many times simply becoming more attentive to one’s basic self- care needs like getting more exercise or learning some relaxation techniques is all it takes to do the trick. Sometimes some counseling or even medication may be prescribed.
To maintain optimal health, it is important to remember the inter-connectedness of one’s mind and body. Understanding that emotional changes can sometimes signal physical problems and that physical problems can sometimes indicate psychological disorders is key to maintaining good health and emotional wellness throughout your life.
Rev. Michael Heath , LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. 10/3/2016
Appreciating the Health Benefits of Good Friends
When it comes to mental and physical health, science is learning more and more about both the benefits of friendship and the increased risks of social isolation. The short quiz given in the link provided below is a good summary of the benefits. For example:
1. Having good friends can boost your life expectancy more than 20%.
2. Loneliness is as harmful to your health as alcoholism, smoking or obesity.
3. Specifically, friendship: -- Eases stress
-- Boosts you immune system and
-- Protects your heart.
4. On the other side, social isolation can lead to: -- Depression
-- Memory loss and
-- A weakened immune system.
5. Also, keeping in touch with friends who have moved and now live far away provide the same benefits as those friends who live close by.
The take aways from these findinga are important.
If your are without friends, don't dispair. Social media provides an excellent way to break the ice and find folks you have things in common with. Friendship can spring from meeting someone withwhom you have common interests.
If you have been neglecting your friends, don't ignore this change because it could be a sign of depression.
Finally, it is important to appreciate how important your friends are. If things have become distant, do something about it and reconnect. You'll be glad that you did !
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. . 9 15 2016
When it comes to sex, men are Windows and women are DOS
We all know that men and women are really different, especially when it comes to sex. If not understood, the differences relating to how often one is in the mood and what is arousing can lead to unnecessary misunderstandings and painful conflicts. Fortunately, there is an easy way to conceptualize the fundamental differences between male and female sexuality: Think of the differences between Windows and DOS computer operating systems.
Back in the day, before a computer was directed by a cursor and a mouse, computers were controlled by Microsoft Disc Operating System (MS DOS). Instead of clicking on an icon on your video screen to navigate through files and folders, DOS was controlled by discreet code commands which told the computer what to do.
The differences between a graphics based, point and click system and a code/ command entry system were dramatic. Not only did Windows make it faster to get to and open a file but you could also have multiple files open simultaneously.
This computer analogy, while not perfect, can help us to understand the differences between male and female sexual response in several ways:
1) Many men have the sex application (interest in) open all of the time. Although it may be minimized in the task bar, all it takes is one key stroke (so to speak) and the program is up and running.
2) The sexual arousal file for most women, in contrast to men, is buried in one sub folder after another and it requires that a series of precise “commands” be entered in order to reach it. For example: One folder to be opened is rest and relaxation and another is having good feelings toward one’s mate while still another is feeling emotionally and physically safe and secure. Only after these “folders” have been opened (i.e. is after a woman is in accesses these feelings) is she able to become sexually interested, available and responsive.
3) Given this more complicated process, the time required for women to reach sexual ecstasy is longer than it is for men. Men require only a few minutes while women commonly need 20 + minutes.
4) Men also need to know that the “foreplay” which precedes sex and is needed to help their partners “get in the mood” is primarily not sexual. Making life easier by helping around the house, being complimentary and considerate are critical steps to opening the female arousal files.
5) Just like with DOS run computers, if one of the preliminary steps to arousal was not properly entered, the whole process can come to a halt or have a less than satisfying conclusion.
6) Understanding female sexual response patterns also provides guidance to trouble-shooting when things don’t go well. If the wife is tired or stressed, if she is not feeling well physically or if she is depressed , having a satisfying sexual experience will be unlikely. Also, if she is angry or resentful at her mate or if there are concerns about honesty or fidelity, these factors can block a robust response.
Finally, understanding and talking about our partner’s experience and concerns, especially when it is different than our own, can be helpful in deepening mutual empathy and increasing the sense of closeness which is needed for lasting and satisfying relations.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. 8 31 2016
Good News for People Who Worry about Memory Loss
A lot of folks are worried about Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. While deterioration in cognitive abiltity is a serious problem for many, it is important to understand that most memory glitches are not permanent nor are they progressive. In fact, many memory problems are caused by other things such as anxiety, depression, dehydration and other medical conditions and most importantly ... are not indicators of Alzheimer's disease.
Recently there has been some good news for people who worry about forgetting things . According to the study, a person's ability to know that s/he has forgotten something is a strong inidcator that that their cognitive aparatus is in tact.
Nonethe less, if you are worried, the first thing to do if you have concerns about your memory or being forgetful, is to see your doctor. There are simple tests which can identify treatable issues which can clear up the problem and relieve your worry.
Also, learn more about what dementia and other cognition impairing conditions and what is actually involved. Here is a helpful link which provides more detailed information about what your doctor will look for. : https://www.healthafter50.com/memory/article/what-is-dementia-what-doctors-check-for?&utm_medium=email&utm_content=EMH_160815_001&utm_campaign=EMH&spMailingID=9355028&spUserID=MTQxMTQzNTkwMjc3S0&spJobID=981187311&spReportId=OTgxMTg3MzExS0
Remember : The more you know, the less you will worry needlessly !
Rev. Michael Heath LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C. 8 14 2016