Life lessons on gratitude

Life lessons on gratitude

As an adolescent, I first learned about gratitude around the Thanksgiving holiday in both straightforward, and more profound ways.

I was fortunate to have many family members clustered around the St. Louis area. We would typically gather at my grandparents’ home in University City. My grandmother, despite her Japanese-American roots, would always prepare and serve a large turkey — a classic, Midwestern “American” Thanksgiving staple. My grandfather, a white Methodist minister’s son from New England, would finish carving the large bird and then shout, “Time for grace!” in his booming voice. Family members would gather around the table and join hands, and my grandfather would lead us in a prayer.

At some point, we started the practice of sharing a personal gratitude before the family prayer. While standing in that circle holding hands, each of us would take turns sharing something that we were grateful for during that year. This practice created space for personal reflection, and for me led to life lessons about gratitude.

Our family held fast to their rituals and traditions. After many Thanksgivings participating in this gratitude ritual, I learned that my grandmother, her parents and siblings had spent three years in a Japanese internment camp in California during World War II. I also discovered that my grandfather, a staunch pacifist, was allowed to become a “conscientious objector” and took on many non-violent roles during WWII. After the war ended, they met and fell in love.

Despite their obvious differences and individual hardships in their early years, they always lived and breathed gratitude. My grandmother became a special education teacher supporting students with emotional and cognitive challenges. She donated her “reparation money” from the post-WWII years to help develop the Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. My grandfather always donated to the American Civil Liberties Union and opposed and protested racial discrimination in all its forms. Together they hosted many international students attending Washington University in their home rent-free over the years while also raising three hardworking, biracial boys in a post-WWII landscape.

My grandparents expressed gratitude in their words and in their actions for not just the joyful times, but also for the opportunity to make meaningful impacts in their community, and for creating a beautiful multi-generation family with their own rituals, traditions, and values.

Now as an adult reflecting back on these Thanksgivings and the seemingly simple ritual of asking “What are you grateful for?” I have learned that the practice of gratitude can start small, and eventually lead to growth, resilience, and a meaningful life.

Gratitude as a way of life

After becoming a therapist, I realized how beneficial it can be to incorporate gratitude into my work with clients as well as in my personal life. While my early experiences of gratitude were coupled with prayer, the practice of gratitude does not need to solely be a religious or spiritual practice. While our lives are often busy with work, household chores, caretaking, and to do lists, taking time to integrate these observations throughout each day.

Benefits of Gratitude

Integrating gratitude into our daily lives can:

• Release negative emotions by redirecting our focus from what is going wrong to what is going right
• Train our minds to notice abundance instead of noticing what we lack
• Offer a new perspective – a way of seeing the world with an awareness of the small moments of joy that surround us every day

Gratitude practices

1) Save an ongoing list of gratitudes – Create a dedicated note in your phone or on a page in a notebook and jot down everything for which you are grateful. Start with the more obvious things like family, or a friend, your home, or your maybe your pet. Then list off the things we take for granted. List everything from a favorite meal to electricity or your child’s smile right down to your shoes. Reflect and add to the list at any time, and review it from time to time when you are having a tough day, and need a reminder.

2) Write gratitude notes – Express your gratitude to people in your life for small kindnesses, big favors or for their overall presence in your life. You will both be lifted by the benefits of gratitude shared.

3) Gratitude in the Moment – As you go about your day, give thanks for sights, sounds and feelings as they arise: the beautiful sky, a sweet smile, the infinite small gifts that we notice each day. Savor the moments. Make a habit of saying an internal, Thank You.

4) Start a gratitude ritual – List three things, people, or experiences you are grateful for each day at the beginning or end of your day. Invite a friend to join you and text each other your list each day. Create a brief tradition with your family, and young children. Hearing other people’s gratitudes can help improve your mood as well.

Jen Durham Austin, LCSW is counselor/therapist that uses a strengths-based approach and specializes in trauma and resiliency work. You can contact her at 314-323-4775 or jen@openaircounseling.com.

Feeling the fall

Leaves, air, equinox: Feeling the fall

The shift in seasons from summer to fall is upon us, beginning with the harvest moon last weekend into the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22.

Fall has been my favorite season for as long as I can remember. I love to watch the leaves change colors as I pass the park near my house, and I love feeling the cooler air in the mornings and evenings, even when the afternoons still feel warm! I especially love sweater weather and the sound of leaves on the streets. Fall brings up the word  “cozy” for me.

Equinox means “equal night” and celebrates a day of balance – day and night are approximately the same length on this day.

A note about the transition from summer to autumn – you might experience some anxiety this season, and that’s ok. It may come from added stress at the beginning of a new school year, less time spent in the sunlight or outdoors, the expectation of the upcoming holiday season, or just a shift to a slower pace and more time spent indoors. The combination of reduction in sunlight (contributing to reduced levels of serotonin) and increased melatonin can cause feelings of sleepiness or depression. Here are some ways to embrace and flow with this seasonal shift in mood:

1.    Get more light – The cooler weather is the perfect time to get outside, take a walk in crunchy autumn leaves, absorb that wonderful golden light, notice the changes in the greenery and foliage around you.  If getting outdoors is difficult or not possible, think about investing in a light therapy box to increase light absorption.

2.    Move your body – Experts recommend 30 minutes a day of movement/ exercise to boost your mental health, but really any amount of movement is going to be beneficial.  Try a yoga class (here!) or a long walk outside for gentle movement to get started.

3.    Start something new – Start a new book or project to spark creativity.  Learn a new skill or revisit a hobby or some other enjoyable activity.

4.    Change your perspective – Imagine the coziest of scenes. What do you need to feel good in autumn?  The Danish concept of “hygge” means to encourage wellness by making your space cozy and comfortable.

Thinking and writing

Fall always seems like a time of reflection to me. We haven’t yet started the holiday busyness that can make the end of the year feel, well, busier and a bit more stressful. In my therapy practice, I encourage folks to use journaling as a means for reflection and exploring experiences and feelings as they come up in our work together. Sometimes journaling might look like stream of consciousness – get it all out on paper and sort through it. I also find journaling prompts helpful to dig into themes a little differently or with more direction or depth. If you haven’t tried journaling before, maybe this autumn season is a time to try it out. Maybe you have been feeling anxious or sadness and can’t exactly identify what those feelings are related to in your life. Journaling is a one way to explore without judgment – accepting whatever comes up with kindness and curiosity.

Here are a few autumn thoughts to consider:

Harvest – What abundance did I notice and experience this year? What are the things that I’ve put my energy, hard work and effort into this year?  What kind of growth has shown up in my life in the past few months?

Balance – What are the places that feel balanced in my life right now? What about not so balanced? What might bring those things closer to feeling aligned with my values or energy levels?

Preparation – Autumn is a time of preparation for the colder months ahead.  Things in nature are dying off and shutting down in preparation for being dormant for a period of time. Are there any habits or beliefs to let go of right now? What can I let go of that no longer serves its purpose in my life?

I love this thought written by naturalist Hal Borland:“For the Fall of the year is more than three months bounded by an equinox and a solstice. It is a summing up without the finality of year’s end.”

The “summing up” can mean reflection or gratitude or abundance or preparation, but it is not the end, it’s just a period of transition found both in nature and in our spirit. Happy Equinox!

Melody McArthur, MA, LCP, is a licensed professional counselor. She has a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. You can contact Melody at 314-309-9515 or melody@treeoflifecounseling-stl.com.

Those who remember: suicide in the family

Those who remember:
Surviving suicide in the family

In 2007, I was really starting to figure out my life. I had a good job. I had the support of my family. My sister and I bought a home together – our first house. After some years of instability and ups and downs with jobs and romantic relationships, things felt good – almost too good. And then, the unthinkable happened … three months later, my grandfather died by suicide.

To say that this was “earth shattering” doesn’t quite capture it. To say that this was a monumental event in my life is a gross understatement. It took my middle-class, nothing-really-significant-going-on family and shook it to the core.

Things that I remember from that day: knowing something was really wrong with my mom as she, who can talk for hours on the phone, couldn’t speak. I followed her, asking what had happened again and again, while she tried to escape notice, walking from the back of our house to the front, as if she could just leave the situation in the other room. Then, when she told me, a guttural, animal-like scream rose up from my chest as I fell to the floor, staring up at the ceiling while my younger sister comforted my mom, saying the words I’d wished I could conjure up.

This was NOT how my story was supposed to go, and yet it happened – without my permission. Like a big middle finger raised amidst the reconstruction of my life, it seemed to loudly proclaim, “YOU are not normal,” and this was proof.

Things won’t feel normal for a while; that’s normal

When I consider those of us who survive a death by suicide, I think about it as two separate issues or recovery trajectories – from trauma, and also from grief. In other words, it’s a lot! So, it’s normal that you’re feeling a lot.

First is our trauma response to the event which has occurred. My reaction demonstrates a freeze response. This is the instinctual response that we have – fight, flight, freeze or fawn in the face of a threat. For many of us, this occurs when we find out that a loved one has died suddenly by suicide. For others, this may include discovering our loved one or receiving a message from them prior to their death, or even witnessing this event, which is to say there are varying levels of trauma and accordingly varying reactions.

It can feel like the memory of what has happened is tattooed on our brains and flashbacks, sleeplessness, intrusive thoughts of the traumatic event are common. Often, we experience feelings of numbness, as we’re feeling too much after this loss and will need to feel safe and have time to be with each feeling individually. This is normal.

Tip: Let time take time. For most of us, we’ll need 4-6 weeks for the shock of the loss to be absorbed in order to participate in therapy. Keep it simple, focusing on your needs. Eat the casserole; take that walk.

Grief may be delayed … until it’s safe

Since death by suicide is by definition is a traumatic loss, it may take a while for us to experience feelings of grief. This does not mean that we didn’t love the person who died or miss them. It just means that we may not yet feel safe to be with feelings of grief or we haven’t had the space or intention needed to process them. So, in the meantime we feel a bit numb. This can really be tough for people attending funeral services, as there is often an expectation that we demonstrate feelings of grief, and what if we don’t feel this? It can be really frightening for a person if their response to a loss is unfamiliar and can be hard to ground oneself.

Most of us are aware of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Fewer of us are aware that these stages do not play by any sort of rules. They are often out of order We can feel multiple feelings at the same time and it can be awfully challenging to tell the difference between numbness from trauma and feelings of denial.

Grief can accumulate. Consider this situation: one day I lose a family member by suicide. I have little reaction .A few months go by and an elderly neighbor dies. I handle it in stride. Then, a few weeks later, my dog dies and I’m devastated. I can’t get out of bed, feed myself, brush my hair. It’s all too much. This too is normal.

Tip: When we start to experience a lot of feelings, or conversely, a significant time (>3 months) without much feeling, it’s a good sign that it’s time to start therapy. Practicing mindfulness can also help you build a sense of bodily safety.

Suicide is an ambiguous loss

One of the most difficult things to consider, not only that a loved one left us, but that they did so by choice and at the same time, it’s not about us. It’s about the unimaginable pain that a loved one experienced and the idea that they’ve felt “stuck” and without options, whether for a moment or a long period of time. This is really difficult for most of us to imagine – and that’s a good thing. However, it can cause us to go to great lengths and efforts to attempt to cognitively and emotionally understand what may have happened in their final moments, especially those who have died by suicide. And the reality is, we’ll never know. Just like we may never know what it’s like to be an astronaut or to dive to the deepest parts of the ocean.

When I think of this, I believe that most people have a reason for wanting to solve why a person died by suicide. They may feel responsible, believing that they could have prevented their loved one’s death. Like me, you could desire to understand if there is some part lying dormant in you that could behave in a similar way. Or maybe you wonder if you “weren’t enough” for someone to continue their life? In a world that values certainty, it can be tough to be with the ambiguous, especially when it comes to the loss of a person we hold dear, and yet it’s such an important skill. It teaches us to hold space for the parts of life that are truly unimaginable.

Tip: This is deep therapy work and can serve as a mirror for us. What would we want in a time of crisis? What is our role in our family? How can we feel as if we’re enough?

Ann Netzer, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist working with individuals and couples, specializing in trauma and recovering from childhood hurts in order to live a life in accordance with ones’ desires and values. You can contact her at ann@arnpsychotherapy.com or 314-669-6446.

Some crisis resources

• If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 immediately.
• If you are uncomfortable talking on the phone, you can chat the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988lifeline.org.
• You can also text NAMI to 741-741 to be connected to a free, trained crisis counselor on the Crisis Text Line.
• Know the Warning Signs and Risk Factors of Suicide
• Being Prepared for a Crisis
• Read our guide, “Navigating a Mental Health Crisis”
• What You Need to Know About Youth Suicide
— NAMI

To forgive is to heal

To forgive is to heal

June 24th was a difficult day for a lot of women in America. And when I was asked that day to write about Global Forgiveness Day, my first thought (and even my text response) was, “Man, this is a hard day to ask me to write about forgiveness.”

There is a lot right now to be upset and even angry about. But anger is corrosive and I’ve worked hard to regulate it within myself. With the part of me that knows therapy is my vocation, I reminded myself that this is probably the best time to write about forgiveness.

Those who meet me for therapy are used to receiving the assignment to allow themselves more space, more quietude. Many times, we find the mental static that is difficult to clear relates to a need for forgiveness. This can be forgiveness of self or forgiveness of others. Predictably there are benefits from outward forgiveness, toward others due to wrongs committed against us; forgiving inward, allowing ourselves grace for our actions, also confers great emotional rewards.

Allow forgiveness while keeping boundaries

I caution that we do not have to lose our boundaries in the process; I do not advise to forgive AND forget. That would be short sighted, and I believe would cut us off from learning the lessons of life. Forgiveness does not mean we have to compromise boundaries that we set to keep ourselves safe. It does not mean we have to agree with or condone. We can retain necessary internal or external boundaries while still seeking the relief of forgiveness.

Forgiveness and its partner, acceptance, can liberate us from the heavy weight of resentment regardless of what we decide to do later, after we have found a level of forgiveness inside of our body and mind. When we forgive, it does not require or presuppose that we are then going to reconnect or spend more time with those whom we are forgiving outwardly. As we find forgiveness, even as we may need an emotional or physical boundary, we benefit from having a level of forgiveness in order to liberate ourselves and our minds from the gnawing of that resentment and pain. Try as we might, we cannot outrun ourselves, so forgiveness of self is essential for wellbeing.

Slow down, give yourself space

It is a common experience for people to have a feeling of not being enough or being too much. The modern world is full of ways to avoid, with screens and with moving quickly through life. This facilitates more chaotic and harried thinking instead of allowing for space to consider what is next. Slowing down can allow us the opportunity to take stock and when we are in a centered place, look at the thoughts we are having with a higher perspective and a clearer view. The keys to forgiveness live here.

Author and clinical social worker Brené Brown, who has become quite the pop culture icon for a qualitative researcher, wrote in Atlas of the Heart (2021) about a surprise she found in her research on emotions. Happiness and joy, which are held up as the pinnacle of the feeling states, are actually not the feelings from which the people she studied found the greatest pleasure; she learned that what people crave is contentment.

I encourage you to seek ease and contentment. Despite the mellow tone of this writing, know that seeking and finding contentment also provides understanding and clarity; within these lie power. Fuel for the other actions we may want to take, moves we want to make that we could not have found without the easeful times. Take care of you; you deserve contentment.

Kim Warden, LCSW, CCDP-D, is trained and experienced as a licensed clinical social worker and a substance use disorder counselor specializing in trauma. You can contact her at 314-737-6848 or imagine.peace.k@gmail.com.

Healing from trauma is tough, but worth it

Healing from trauma is tough, but worth it

June is National PTSD Awareness Month and June 27 is PTSD Awareness Day!

Originally the description for warring soldiers returned to civilization with heightened startle responses and “far-away” looks in the eye, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder now includes other life-threatening or violent situations experienced or witnessed by people.

While additional criteria must be met for a person to obtain a diagnosis of PTSD, the hallmarks of this struggle include: 1) recurrent intrusive thoughts or memories of the event(s), 2) persistent avoidance of the event(s), and 3) negatively changed thinking or mood after the event(s). Think about this for a moment, friends — people suffering from PTSD are stuck in a cycle of pushing away traumatic thoughts only to be blindsided by them again and again. Their mood and thoughts decline, lost in a loop of no control, and eventually those with PTSD become so demoralized it is easy to give up on life.

It is often at the “giving up” point that a person might reach out for help; they may contact a therapist or end up in an emergency room with suicidal thoughts. It can feel like they’ve completely lost reference points in their life. The physical body has undergone such turmoil for so long it is exhausted. The mental faculties are in despair since there is no way to control or make sense of one’s thoughts. Relationally, they’ve nothing left to offer another, and they are confused about trusting anyway. Everywhere they look, life looks bleak.

There is another way

There has been such growth of understanding within the study of trauma and treatment of trauma in the past decade that people experiencing PTSD no longer must suffer without care. We now know the mind, body, spirit, relationships – all aspects of a person can receive treatment and care to facilitate the healing of their symptoms. In fact, when more than one area is addressed simultaneously, healing can happen more quickly.

The work to heal from PTSD is still unbelievably difficult, don’t let me paint an easy picture here. It takes much longer than anyone wants, feels like your guts are getting ripped out, and the world is turned upside down – on repeat. The point is, though, that it is possible to have a better life. Not a life filled with intrusions and avoidance, feeling confused and at fault.

If you or someone you know has experienced traumatic life event(s) and needs help navigating the myriad ways this is showing up in your life, please reach out to us. We’ve got specially trained therapists, body workers and relationship coaches who will try our best to help you; and if for some reason we’re not able to help you, we’ll do our best to connect you to someone who can.

You deserve to have a good life despite what painful things have happened to you. It might be hard to believe, those things don’t define you; you’ve suffered long enough, don’t let them take anymore from you.

Dr. Gwin Stewart founded the St. Louis Wellness Center in 2007. You can write her at  DrGwin@hotmail.com. Read more about her HERE.

Keep a watchful eye on your skin

Keep a watchful eye on your skin

“This is what it looks like. This is what you’re looking for,” my mom said as she pointed at a blackish-red spot on her arm. “Your aunts, your cousin and I have all had skin cancer. You have my skin. Keep an eye out.”

I had many of these conversations with my mom when I was a kid. My parents, like everyone of their generation, grew up without sunscreen. My dad got a tan; my mom got cancerous spots. Every time she went to the doctor to get one removed, she would point it out to me, explain what to look out for, and remind me of the importance of sunscreen. Every time we spent time outside, we would religiously apply my SPF 30. I still do so.

My mom was not alone. One-in-5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age 70, with 1 percent of those being melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanomas, as well as other skin cancers, are up to 20 times more likely to occur in fair-skinned people than in those with dark skin. It is deadlier and more common in men than in women, and the average age of diagnosis is 65.

Luckily, skin cancer is generally visible, and can be caught quickly if you know what you’re looking for. You just need to remember your ABCDEs.

A: Asymmetry. A normal mole will appear symmetrical. If the mole or spot becomes an irregular shape, it’s time to go see a doctor.

B: Border. An irregular, scalloped or ill-defined border on a mole can be a symptom that the mole is cancerous.

C: Color. A regular mole is all one color, while a melanoma is much more likely to be varied in color.

D: Diameter. Always get a spot checked out if its diameter is more than 6 mm, or a quarter inch.

E: Evolving. If a spot changes, it’s time to go to the doctor.

Following these guidelines, you’re much more likely to catch melanomas in time. That being said, it is still a good idea to get your skin checked once a year for melanomas and other skin cancers. Wear sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher when you’ll be in the sun for more than 15 minutes, and be especially careful with children, as severe sunburns in childhood and adolescence are more likely to contribute to a later cancer diagnosis.

In other words, avoid sunburns, keep an eye on your skin, and you can start to incorporate sunscreen into your daily skin care routine during this Skin Cancer Awareness Month. You deserve to feel good in your skin every day. Get in touch with me if I can help you with that!

Rikki Techner is a skin care specialist who formulates her own line of artisan, small-batch serums, cleansers and moisturizers with her Mind Body Skin Care. She is a licensed esthetician and does facials and make up at the St. Louis Wellness Center. Contact Rikki at 314-422-0308 or Rikki@MBSCSkincare.com. Rikki sells her skin care line at several farmers markets in the area. Check her Instagram page for the schedule.