Category Archives: Notes from a Therapist Diary

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Column: Grieving in a new age

 

 

Roger Angell, a writer for the New Yorker magazine is best known for his essays on baseball but wrote a personal piece entitled “This Old Man” last February, describing life in his 10th decade.  I have reread “This Old Man” three times and with each reading, I am renewed with hope and courage. And, of all the books written by my colleagues and the so-called experts on bereavement that I have read after my husband died last year, Roger’s personal essay hit a home run with me. With honesty, humor and a lack of self-pity he describes what we lose after our spouse dies and what we long for again. Roger is an expert on loss; not only losing his wife two years ago, he has lost two grown children, an assortment of friends, family members, his once healthy athletic body and an assortment of fox terriers.

Roger shares his struggles in his therapy, to live without his wife Carol. He writes of physical intimacy in old age that few people under the age of 60 can imagine.

“We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies, or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming home at night. This is why we throng Match.com and OKCupid in such numbers.”

“But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize it avidly, stunned and altered again.”

It’s unlikely that Mr. Angell met his new wife of a year on Match.com but he unabashedly encourages us to find another, even if it’s for two years or three months. He reminds us to stay present and not drown in the past. He is what George Bonanno, PhD psychologist and clinical professor at Columbia University would call a “resilient” griever, with most of us falling into this category.

Yet we re-enter our new lives as widows and widowers differently than our younger selves because life has made us different. If we choose to find “another,” then we have to enter the dating game. Our memories of youth include a plethora of available people to date and places to meet them. Now most of the available single people our age have declined, but the bright side is that the age of technology can assist us in dating. The over 65 population is one of the highest users of online dating services today. We are 53 million strong with about a ratio of one man to every three women. While the numbers do not favor women, there seems to be a 17 percent success rate in coupling.

Dating online requires learning how to position oneself with the help of a written profile and photographs. Your written profile has to be genuine, but not weighted down by too many details.  Fudging is permissible. Men seem to exaggerate their height and financial success. Women fudge their weight and both sexes shave their ages by several years or more. Most women create separate email addresses for dating and others even choose to hide their caller ID. Some online sights are scams, taking your money with promises of a continuing supply of dates which do not materialize. Other online sights are known to collect scammers from other countries that are dangerous with the FBI setting up a website to cross reference photos and alias’ that scammers use.

Because we have lived long lives there are often complicated life stories with deceased spouses, ex-wives and grown children. And there are the mistakes that people have made that, they have either learned from or repeat. It’s up to us to know our threshold for what we can tolerate.

Dating online is nothing more than going out on one blind date after another, and I am told this is a numbers game…the more people you meet the more chances you have of finding someone.   Some approach it like a business; one woman I know blitzed 200 men with the same email and got a 10 percent return and is now in a relationship. Others see online dating as a “sport,” attempting to meet as many people in a weekend as possible. And we soon learn to avoid prolonged emailing and prolonged phone calls, recognizing that meeting in person is the best way to judge a candidate for a potential relationship.

Yes, we are rusty at dating but not at life. Roger reminds us that a caring connection to another still awaits us. “Hook, line and sinker; never mind the why or wherefore; somewhere in the night; love me forever or at least until next week.”

Roger says find happiness and savor its sweetness.

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Column: Managing your triggers can be challenging

VolperMark Twain wrote, “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which never happened.”

Twain’s humor suggests that, unknowingly, we create many unnecessary problems. Researchers point out we have more than 60,000 thoughts daily and most are repetitive. We believe rethinking problems protects us against tragedy, but, in reality, these thoughts inadvertently can create more anxiety and prolonged discomfort.

So how do we harness our minds and make them our friends when challenged?

Having meditated for almost 30 years, I like to think of myself in training to not only work with my mind, but to make it my friend. Meditators, as well as proponents of cognitive behavioral therapy, teach thoughts and feelings are like clouds in the sky; they come and they go. It is the nature of our minds to think and work out problems. Thinking has been our best defense against the real dangers in the world, yet there is a tipping point at which rethinking a problem can create more internal stress.

One meditation technique I have learned is to respond rather than react to difficult events. As a younger person, I often reacted to perceived hurts by either striking out verbally or, alternatively, remaining silent though hurt and angry.

Neither response created a successful resolution.

But by waiting to respond to charged events or emotions, I have been able to develop more objectivity, enabling me to create more successful outcomes in these situations.

Some years back, a client told me his colleague was rude to him in a meeting. His account contained many details of the verbal insult he endured. In the retelling of his story, he became self-critical by demeaning his professional skills, his role as a husband and as a father.

How did one unpleasant exchange with a colleague end with a character assassination?

Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher, refers to this state as the “trance of unworthiness.” This trance, which feels normal, prevents us from recognizing our self-criticisms.

Unpacking his experience within a few therapy sessions, the client slowly discovered his exaggerated responses were exactly that; exaggerated and trance-like. He became more conscious of his initial reactive state and recognized his additional reactive thoughts about himself were hurtful. This awareness was significant in allowing him to see thoughts and feelings are not fixed states, but, in fact, constantly changing.

My role as a therapist is not to ask people to meditate, but instead to teach them in therapy the principles of self-regulation that come indirectly from mindfulness meditation and from responding rather than reacting to difficulties.

When triggered by an event or a person, we are often unable to soothe and comfort ourselves because we are overwhelmed with emotion. The following five steps are suggestions to help you work more successfully with uncomfortable feelings.

First, note the event that triggers you. Are you responding to a person or an external event? Observe your bodily responses. Do you feel hot, is your face flushed, are you cold, shaking or sweating?

Second, become curious about your feelings and identify the feeling. Are you angry, sad, confused or afraid? If you don’t know, then just note that awareness.

Third, take a few deep breaths from your belly and breathe out through your mouth. Breathe slowly, giving yourself time between breaths to avoid becoming light-headed. Breathing deeply brings you into your body and out of your thoughts which calms the nervous system. Note the change in how you feel as you breathe. Use supportive statements, such as “thoughts and feelings are temporary,” or “this will pass,” or whatever statement feels comforting.

Fourth, remind yourself of the importance of calming down before confronting a potentially explosive situation. Use healthy distractions to assist you in refocusing your thoughts, such as exercising, listening to music or a podcast, reading a favorite book or calling a trusted friend.

Fifth, remember that a “cool down” period can take a few hours or even a few days depending on how unsettling the experience has been. The goal is to be less reactive and more responsive. With the lessening of emotion, you will be more capable of making a rational decision in face of a demanding situation.

Mark Twain, living more than a100 years ago, proved to be a keen observer of his mind who pointed out that ruminating over problems can end up being a fruitless exercise. All of us have the capacity to lessen our emotional burdens. We can learn to handle our intense emotional states by taking time to sort our feelings, thereby minimizing, rather than maximizing, our difficulties.

If you are interested in reading more on this topic, I recommend “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach, PH.D.

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Hillary Volper, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Westchester
and New York City. To contact Hillary you can email her at HGVolper@aol.com
or go to her website www.HillaryVolper.com

 

 

Volper

Column: Battling the uneasiness of fight or flight

The crickets are chirping softly outside my Westchester office, and my client tells me how sad she is that her 91-year-old grandmother has been hospitalized. Tears stream down her face as she describes the inability of her aunts and uncles to understand how seriously ill her grandmother has been. Both her parents died early and her grandmother is like a mother to her. Volper

At the hospital, she was the only family member to speak with the doctors, nurses, social workers and staff. She felt abandoned by her family and alone in trying to make the necessary decisions for her grandmother. At one point, the staff brought in a ventilator to assist her grandmother’s breathing and she finally felt the full impact of her grandmother’s physical health.

One morning, she allowed herself the “luxury” of leaving the hospital to find a restaurant. Sitting in her car she felt frantic and isolated. While using her GPS she called her cousin for support, even though she knew it was dangerous to be driving under these circumstances.

I suggested to my client, that her nervous system was on overload and that she was in “fight” mode. When we feel threatened, our nervous systems go into a “fight or flight” mode in response to our fears. When both the “fight and flight” modes are operating together we can become “frozen.” This may then lead us to feel depressed, or even hopeless.

For example, veterans and others who experience catastrophic events may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, as a result of their nervous systems shutting down in this state of extreme trauma.

While PTSD is the extreme response to catastrophic trauma, all of us experience trauma in our everyday lives. Our nervous systems ramp up when we are feeling threatened; our hearts may race, our hands may become clammy, our breath may become shallow or a sense of lethargy may emerge. In the “flight” mode, we avoid doing tasks that we need to do most.

However, we all have the innate ability to calm and restore our nervous systems to a state of equilibrium. The problem is that most of us don’t realize that our bodies can be a source to help us to feel better.

That is why I suggested to my client that we try two exercises that she could use to calm herself.  I suggested that she imagine, either a person, place or thing that brings comfort to her. Her place of comfort she said is a remote beach she visits. As she visualized the scene, she saw high dunes, the seagulls riding the wind and the waves crashing against the shore. I then, asked her to tell me what she was sensing in her body as she envisioned this scene. She reported that she felt her breath slowing down, her chest felt more open and she was feeling more peaceful.

I gently suggested that this was the perfect thought that she could go back to whenever she was feeling threatened or overwhelmed. I also suggested that in these moments, she could also take some deep breaths to calm herself.

So, to apply this exercise to counter your stressful moments, I would recommend that you do the following:  Either alone, or with someone you know well sit quietly. Think about a person, place or thing that brings a sense of ease to your body and mind. You will know you found it when your mind slows down, or your breathing deepens or you feel a sense of ease. Once you find this “resource” you may use this memory to bring your stress levels down. It may take a little practice, but if you find that image in a quiet time you will be able to draw on it in moments of difficulties when you need it most.

Hillary Volper, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Westchester and New York City. She works with individuals, couples and groups. She is on staff at the Training Institute for Mental health, where she teaches and supervises and sits on their Board of Trustees.
To contact Hillary you can email her at HGVolper@aol.com or go to her website at: www.HillaryVolper.com