Alcohol Anonymous: Strength in Numbers

Alcoholics Anonymous

“When I stopped living in the problem and began living in the answer, the problem went away.”

~ Alcoholics Anonymous

According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 86.4 percent of people ages 18 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime. While it may not lead to an addiction for some, it does for others. Alcohol has touched all of our lives in one way or another, whether it is personally or through someone we care about. Because April is Alcohol Awareness month, I want to dedicate a post to one of the most helpful, renowned support groups for those working to overcome an addiction to alcohol: Alcoholics Anonymous.

WHAT IS ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS (AA)?

Alcoholics Anonymous is an international group of men and women who have had or are working to conquer a drinking problem. AA is open to all races, politically neutral, self-supporting, and is available almost everywhere. There are no age or education requirements, and membership is open to anyone who wants to do something about his or her drinking problem.

HOW DID AA START?

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, who were both recovering alcoholics. In 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous began as a community-based fellowship which encouraged sobriety for other recovering alcoholics. These two men developed the 12 steps to aid their attendees, and later introduced the 12 traditions to help further define the group’s purpose and achieve continuity for AA groups across the country (and later around the globe). AA paved the way for other support groups; today Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous are just three of the many groups that have modeled themselves after the AA meeting concept.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN TENETS OF AA?

The original steps are still intact and many former addicts credit the group with helping them through recovery. The 12 steps that govern all AA group meetings are presented in linear fashion, but participants see them as an ongoing circle. The following steps may be revisited until the recovering addict is comfortable in that stage of their recovery process:

  1. Admit powerless over alcohol
  2. Accept that a higher power, in whatever form, will restore your sanity
  3. Make a decision to turn your will and life over to a higher power
  4. Take a moral inventory of yourself
  5. Admit to a higher power, another human, and yourself the nature of your wrongdoings
  6. Accept that a higher power will remove your character defects
  7. Humbly request the higher power remove your shortcomings
  8. List people you hurt during your addiction and be willing to make amends
  9. Make amends to those people unless it would harm them
  10. Continue to take a personal inventory, and when you’re wrong, admit it
  11. Use prayer and meditation to connect with the higher power
  12. Carry the message of AA to other alcoholics and continue to practice the principles of the 12 steps in your daily life

DOES AA WORK?

Because AA is anonymous, some members of the group do not participate in studies since it could breach anonymity. Many want their participation in AA to remain unidentified, in line with the group’s original intention. Additionally, participants might not want to admit to relapse. A New York Times article stated that AA claims that up to 75% of its members stay abstinent.  Alcoholics Anonymous’ Big Book touts about a 50% success rate, stating that another 25% remain sober after some relapses. Though it is difficult to know just how effective it is, it is safe to say that many people have been helped by regularly attending AA. Just how effective depends on the participant.

CAN AA WORK FOR THOSE WHO DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD?

The first time I read through the twelve steps, I was surprised how often God was referred to. While the faith-based program of AA may be effective for some, it does not work for everyone — particularly those who do not subscribe to God as a higher power.  Might I offer a solution: AA founder, Bill Wilson, encountered the term “higher power” in the book, Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. In this book, James offers many examples from Christian traditions, as well as non-Christian examples. One of the best examples of “higher and friendly power” is borrowed from Henry David Thoreau walking in the midst at Walden Pond feeling a sense of connection to pine needles. He cited other examples of a “higher power” to potentially include moral principles, patriotism, civic engagement, and even a higher or better self. Therefore, the term “higher power” does not have to be a faith-based term and thus varies from participant to participant.

You could go to an AA meeting in Los Angeles, London or Lima and each one would be carried out in a similar fashion. This is because the steps and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous are the foundation for every meeting. In each meeting, members will get to know one another, discuss progress and relapses, and support each other through sponsor programs. Although it can be difficult going to an AA meeting with complete strangers and admitting to such a personal issue, it is the only place where every participant knows exactly how you feel. They have been where you are and can support you in your journey. That is powerful. To quote AA literature: “The feeling of having shared in a common peril is one element in the powerful cement which binds us.”  This instantaneous bond cultivates a unique feeling of community and understanding that is incredibly helpful to those recovering from alcohol addiction.

The only real way to find out if Alcoholics Anonymous can help you is to give it a try. See for yourself if you think the help and support from others struggling with the same problem can help you stay sober. As Alcoholics Anonymous has no dues or fees, you have nothing to lose in choosing to visit a few meetings. I strongly encourage it. Call now at 877-600-9205 or go online and use a meeting finder to find a meeting in your area. Click here if you are local to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area and could benefit from community resources. In like manner, if you feel you could use professional help, I invite you to contact me today or schedule a session to begin your journey toward recovery. I am here to help you along the uphill road of addiction recovery!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Healthy Brain, Happy Life

Healthy Brain, Happy Life

“The mind of man is capable of anything.” –Joseph Conrad

There are certain things you and I have learned to do to take care of our bodies. These include brushing our teeth, washing hands, wearing sunscreen in the sun, eating a balanced diet, and trying to fit in regular exercise. There is so much knowledge about how to keep the body physically healthy! In like manner, new research has yielded valuable information about things that can be done to promote a healthy brain.  In recent years, research on the brain has made leaps and bounds, and has impacted my practice for the better.  Much of what I do–especially helping clients who are battling anxiety, depression, or other diagnosable mental illnesses–is impacted by this research. It can positively impact you, too. Today I want to share some of the findings that will help promote a healthy brain.

The benefits of keeping the brain healthy are innumerable. The following action list will not only help keep your brain young and healthy, but also positively impact other parts of your body, health, and life in general. Read the list, then consider one or two things you can start doing today to rejuvenate your brain. Your brain ten years from now will thank you!

  1. Mental stimulation. Keep learning and challenging your brain. Mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them.  Any mentally stimulating activity should help to build up your brain. You can try reading, taking courses, trying word puzzles or math problems…even Sudoku! Similarly, experiment with activities that require manual dexterity as well as mental effort, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts.
  2. STAY HEALTHY! Taking care of your body will adversely promote a healthy brain. So exercise; it will lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and reduce stress. Meditate. Eat healthy foods; a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in saturated fat, full of the nutrients found in leafy green vegetables, along with whole grains can help keep your brain healthy throughout your life. Get quality sleep; give your brain a rest by shutting it off for 7-9 hours a night. This is when it will reset, heal, and be restored to full health. Avoid tobacco, drugs, alcohol and other harmful substances that alter how the brain functions. Be sure to care for your emotions (read: self-care). A “reset” or self-care/personal time is everything for managing the emotions that affect both mind and body!
  3. Prioritize brain space. I am guilty of expending precious mental energy remembering where I put my phone or remembering what was on my mental grocery list. The suggestion here is to take advantage of calendars and planners, maps, shopping lists, file folders, and address books to keep routine information accessible. This way it is easier to concentrate on learning and remembering new and important things.
  4. Repetition, repetition, repetition! When you want to remember something you have just heard, read, or thought about, repeat it out loud or write it down. That way, you reinforce the memory or connection. (If you just met Emily, for example, use her name when getting to know her better: “So, Emily, where did you meet your husband?”)
  5. Be social. When you are socializing, the blood circulates to several different parts of your brain as you are listening and formulating responses. Strong social ties have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, as well as lower blood pressure and longer life expectancy. So get off your phone, Instagram and Netflix, and go interact with your friends!
  6. Protect your head. Head injuries increase the risk of cognitive impairment. Wear a helmet when you are biking, skiing, snowboarding, rafting, horseback riding, scootering, using a motorcycle, or any other activity that could potentially result in a head injury.
  7. Think positively. There is a well-known effect in the psychology of education referred to as the “Pygmalion effect.” If you set high standards for yourself and believe that achieving them is possible, they become possible. Thinking positive thoughts has a profound impact on the brain!

Take charge of your brain health. Everyday you and I make choices that affect the health of our brains both today and in the future. Prepare now for a healthy, happy future by exercising your brain and your body, meditating, ingesting healthy foods, getting quality sleep, and thinking positively. As always, should you have questions, or if you feel you would like to talk about your mental health, I invite you to contact me or schedule a session with me personally. My door is always open.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Living Your Best Life, ADHD Aside

“ADHD is not about knowing what to do, but about doing what one knows.” ~ Russell Barkley

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), previously known as ADD, can present challenges for adults across all areas of life. It can be taxing on your health, your job, and your personal and professional relationships. Your symptoms may lead to procrastination, trouble meeting deadlines, difficulty maintaining relationships, and impulsive behaviors. You may wind up feeling alone, and as though friends and family do not understand what you are dealing with. Fortunately, there are skills you can learn to help manage the symptoms of your ADHD. You can improve your daily habits, learn to recognize and use your strengths, and develop techniques that help you work more efficiently, maintain organization, and interact better with those around you.

Over the last several years, awareness about ADHD has increased, and the stigma surrounding this mental health issue has decreased. There are many resources available for adults living with ADHD. Below, in the resources section, I have included links to articles that include specific tips for managing stress and boosting mood, ideas for staying focused and productive at work, suggestions for managing money and bills, advice for managing time and staying on schedule, and instructions to get organized and control clutter. In this post, however, I will share the basic, overarching principles you will find helpful to live your best life despite having ADHD.

  1. Create structure. This is possibly the biggest help to combat ADHD. Make a routine and stick to it every day. Establish rituals around meals, school, work, free time, as well as your morning and evening routines. Simple tasks, such as laying out your clothes and items for the next day, meal prepping, and daily planning can provide essential structure.
  2. Break tasks into manageable pieces. The demands of school, work and life can leave anyone feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and hopeless. Whatever task you are faced with, break it down into bite-sized (so to speak) steps that you CAN do. Then tackle those one by one until you accomplish your end goal.
  3. Simplify and organize your life. Create order in your home or work space. Often, the tendency to get distracted makes organizing clutter difficult. But if everything has a designated place, cleaning up will be efficient and easy. This will allow you to focus on the things that really matter. In addition, having an orderly living or work space will offer you a haven from the chaos of everyday life.
  4. Limit distractions. Individuals with ADHD welcome easily accessible distractions. Television, video games, and the computer encourage impulsive behavior that must be regulated. In addition to decreasing time with electronics, I recommend increasing time doing engaging activities outside the home as an outlet for built-up energy (see next).
  5. Encourage exercise. Physical activity burns excess energy in healthy ways, which will decrease impulsivity. Exercise will help to improve concentration, decrease the risk for depression and anxiety, and stimulate the brain. Did you know that many professional athletes have ADHD? Experts believe that athletics can help those with ADHD find a constructive way to focus their passion, attention, and energy.
  6. Regulate sleep patterns. Bedtime may be an especially difficult for individuals suffering from ADHD. The lack of sleep exacerbates inattention and hyperactivity; therefore, getting quality sleep is paramount! Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post on nightly rituals that will help you “sleep like a baby.” In addition to the suggestions in that post, I recommend eliminating stimulants like sugar and caffeine, and decreasing television time to help get better rest.
  7. Encourage out-loud thinking. Those with ADHD can lack self-control and often speak compulsively, or without thinking. Try verbalizing your thoughts and reasoning. If you do not have someone supportive with whom you can confide, I recommend keeping a journal. It is important to understand your thought process in order to be able to curb impulsive behaviors.
  8. Take breaks. It is 100% normal to become overwhelmed or frustrated with yourself as you try to manage the behaviors and impulses that accompany ADHD. Give yourself breaks, schedule them (include them in step one, when you “create structure”!). Scheduling alone time is important. Good break options include going for a walk, reading a book, taking a relaxing bath, or anything that promotes self-care.
  9. Believe in yourself. Remember that ADHD causes legitimate stress. Do not minimize your feelings of anxiety and frustration. While so doing, it will be important to remain positive and hopeful. Recognize your progress. Believe that you can work through the obstacles before you. Have confidence in yourself and be positive about the future.
  10. Get help. The final suggestion I would like to allow others to help. You do not need to manage ADHD on your own! Allow close family or friends to be part of your journey; rely on them for support and to help you make progress. Additionally, get individualized counseling with a licensed, experienced therapist. I have several patients who have learned the necessary skills to be in control of their ADHD.  I am your advocate and can be you personal cheerleader! Contact me today to schedule a session. Furthermore, some individuals find that receiving medication can help immensely help them in managing their ADHD symptoms. Finally, look into local support groups near you. This is an incredibly helpful resource!

Before I end, I want to leave you with some reminders that have been helpful to those I have worked with. Be willing to make some compromises and recognize that perfection is not realistic. Remember that while ADHD may not be visible on the outside, it is real. You are dealing with a hard thing, so please remember that when the going gets tough! Third, take things one day at a time and remember to keep everything in perspective.

Take heart. You can learn to live with manageable ADHD symptoms and be in control of your life. Let ADHD be an explanation, rather than an excuse. Be patient and remember that change will not happen overnight. These ADHD self-help strategies require practice, patience, and a relentlessly positive attitude. As I always say, my door is wide open and I am here to help. I accept new clients for in-person sessions. Contact me today!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

Beginning the Conversation: Teen Suicide

“Where did I go wrong? / I lost a friend / Somewhere along in the bitterness / And I would have stayed up with you all night / Had I known how to save a life.” “How To Save a Life” by The Fray

It has been a tragic week for our community as many were impacted by the suicide of a teen from a local high school. This particular teenager was described as happy and easygoing, so this loss has rocked and taken the community by complete surprise. Whether it is from a story in the news, or from personally losing a classmate/neighbor/colleague/friend/family member, many of us have experienced the painful aftermath of suicide. Popular artists like Nickelback, Rascal Flatts, James Taylor, Green Day, Billy Joel, The Fray, Katy Perry, U2, Linkin Park, are just a few of the many artists that have also been impacted by suicide and have written songs about their experiences. With my heart heavy from this recent loss in my community, I feel the need to begin to address the mountainous topic of suicide.

Suicide is devastating to family, friends, and a community. Loss, due to suicide, leaves a gaping hole; each suicide intimately affects at least six other people. Parents, siblings, classmates, coaches, and neighbors may be left wondering if they could have done something to prevent that young person from turning to suicide. This post is for those contemplating self-harm or suicide, who work with teens, who are acquainted with someone with a mental illness, or who have wanted to just go to sleep and not wake up…in short, this post is for all of us.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours a day): 1-800-273-8255

It can be hard to remember how it felt to be a teen, caught in between childhood and adulthood. While it is a time of tremendous possibility, it is also a period of great stress and worry. There is intense pressure to fit in socially, to perform academically, and to act responsibly. Young people with mental health problems–such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or insomnia–are at higher risk for suicidal thoughts. Teens going through major life changes–parents’ divorce, moving, a parent leaving home due to military service or parental separation, financial changes–and those who are victims of bullying are at greater risk of suicidal thoughts.

Suicide rates differ for boys and girls. Girls think about and attempt suicide about twice as often as boys, but they typically do so by overdosing on drugs or cutting themselves. Suicide among boys is four times as common because they tend to use more lethal methods–such as firearms, hanging, or jumping from great heights. Interestingly, in the United States, suicide rates are the highest in the months of March, April, and May.

The risk of suicide increases dramatically when kids and teens have access to firearms at home. Nearly 60% of all suicides in the United States are committed with a gun. If there is a gun in your home, please ensure that it is unloaded, locked, and kept out of the reach of children and teens.

Teens who are thinking about suicide might talk about suicide or death in general. They may give hints that they might not be around anymore or talk about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty. They tend to pull away from friends or family. They write songs, poems, or letters about death, separation, and loss. They may start giving away treasured possessions to siblings or friends. They lose the desire to take part in school, sports, or other favorite activities and things. They may have trouble concentrating or thinking clearly, or experience major changes in eating or sleeping habits. They may increasingly engage in more risky behaviors. Or they may seem to suddenly be “better” or “happy” after a period of hopelessness or depression.

If you are contemplating suicide, please… talk to someone. Ask for help. Make a safety plan. The musician, Billy Joel, once attempted suicide; later he wrote the song, “You’re Only Human” to assure his listeners that better times are ahead: “Don’t forget your second wind. Sooner or later you’ll feel that momentum kick in.” Evaluate your relationships; love and friendship are all about respect. If you are in a toxic or unhealthy relationship, it has the power to negatively affect you and cause you to consider self-harm. Seek help! There are so many resources available. Similarly, if you are being bullied, help is available. You deserve love and respect. You are worth it!

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours a day): 1-800-273-8255

Earlier this week, I woke up to a text message in a family thread about what is referred to as the “Momo Challenge” infiltrating YouTube kids and other online platforms. Parents, please be aware of this challenge! Participants are urged to take photos and videos of themselves completing harmful “challenges” that escalate to incredibly dangerous and even suicidal actions. The creators of these challenges have the intent to harm as they invite their users to do dangerous “challenges.” This is not something to toy with. Please, if you or someone you know has gotten sucked into the Momo Challenge or anything akin to it, please entirely disconnect from it. You do not need to play with knives or engage in other risky behaviors to get love and attention. You are worthy of love and belonging without harming yourself!

There has been a major uptick in teen suicide the last few years. Several teachers at Lone Peak High School in Highland, Utah, noticed this epidemic and made a slam poem into an inspiring video for their students. In it, the teachers share their past failures and disappointments, as well as how things changed for the better as life continued on. They plead with their students to not harm themselves, to keep going, and to remember their worth. I urge all of you to watch their video as well as to share it on your social media platforms. Here are some of their words:

This isn’t the end. High School was never meant to be the end.

It’s too early to draw the final conclusion. This proof is incomplete. This is not your denouement. It’s not the fourth quarter. This is not the curtain call.

You are more than the sport you play and the one you don’t; more than a GPA, ACT, AP, honors, regular classification on a college application.

You can do this. We believe in you. And when they call your name at graduation, we’ll call you patience. We’ll call you courage. We’ll call you hope and say we saw it all along.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline (24 hours a day): 1-800-273-8255

Please, my readers, if you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please reach out. There are so many resources and so many people willing to help and listen–despite if you feel alone, helpless, or hopeless. If you feel there is no one else to turn to, please know that I am here as your advocate and your cheerleader. My door is always open! Contact me with questions or click here to schedule a session.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

Different Yet the Same: OCD & OCPD

For many, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) means avid hand-washing, excessive organizing, color-coding and deep cleaning. Though associating OCD with these habits isn’t exactly wrong, it leaves out an important part of the picture.

You may be familiar with Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets who plays the part of an author with OCD. Throughout the film, he engages in ritualistic behaviors (also known as compulsions) that disrupt his interpersonal and professional life.  To avoid contaminants outside of his apartment, he wears gloves in public and warns pedestrians not to touch him. He refuses to use restaurant silverware and instead brings his own plastic utensils wrapped inside a protective bag. And upon returning to his orderly apartment, he immediately disposes of the gloves and commences a multi-step cleansing ritual by washing with scalding hot water and multiple new bars of soap.

This is a common portrayal of obsessive-compulsive disorder. You are likely familiar with this disorder, especially because it is common to joke about yourself or others being, “so OCD,” or overly tidy. In this post, I will delve deeper into OCD and explain the differences between this disorder and its closely named counterpart, OCPD.

Obsessive-compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder defined by the presence of obsessive and compulsive behaviors. These behaviors occur together and interfere with a person’s quality of life and ability to function. Individuals with OCD have frequent, upsetting thoughts (obsessions) that they try to control by repeating particular behaviors (compulsions). This cycle sparks a great deal of anxiety because it is not only intrusive and unwanted, but also recurrent. All else gets paused until the compulsion is appeased.

OCD is a genetic predisposition and it usually makes its first appearance in childhood or adolescence. It is often triggered by a stressful or traumatic experience. The behaviors of individuals with OCD are driven by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. They are aware their thoughts are irrational, but their fear and anxiety is the reason behind their compulsions. Many individuals suffering from OCD seek treatment to alleviate their anxiety.

Obsessive-compulsive Personality Disorder

Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) is a personality disorder defined by strict orderliness and control over of one’s environment at the expense of all else. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) describes OCPD as “a pervasive pattern of preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency.” Individuals with OCPD tend to think their way of doing things is the only way, and they are unlikely to delegate unless they know people will do things as well as they do. Their perfectionism keeps them at a high standard, so though they succeed at work, they are difficult to work with. They show unhealthy perfectionism and want to be in control of what is going on around them. They are judgmental, controlling, and stubborn. People with OCPD are difficult to live with and relationships suffer. They often feel paralyzed and unable to make decisions because they fear making the wrong one. They even struggle getting rid of items that no longer have value, which often leads to hoarding.

This disorder is usually diagnosed in late adolescence or young adulthood. It is approximated that men are twice as likely as women to be diagnosed with OCPD.

Juxtaposition

These two disorders have a few shared traits that connect them–a fear of contamination, a preoccupation with symmetry, and a nagging sense of doubt. If you are still unsure of the difference between these two disorders, allow me to further compare and contrast them:

  1. OCD is an anxiety disorder while OCPD is a personality disorder.
  2. Studies indicate that those with OCD are continually in search of immediate gratification, while those with OCPD can delay immediate reward.
  3. The symptoms of OCD tend to fluctuate in association with the underlying anxiety. Because OCPD is defined by inflexibility, the behaviors tend to be persistent and unchanging over time.
  4. Persons with OCD will often seek professional help to overcome the irrational nature of their behavior and the persistent state of anxiety they live under. Persons with OCPD will usually not seek help because they do not see that anything they are doing is abnormal or irrational.
  5. Individuals with OCPD do not experience an OCD cycle.

I want to elaborate on that final point, because it is the best way to differentiate OCD from OCPD. The key difference between the two is the cycle that sufferers experience, or the trigger. Those with OCD may constantly notice things out of place (trigger), and they will obsess over “fixing” the problem (compulsion) to the point that they are unable to focus on other tasks. If they do not appease their compulsions, anxiety will mount. Once the time is taken to “fix” things, they feel relief…until the next trigger appears. With OCPD, the behaviors are not directed by uncontrollable thoughts or irrational behaviors that are repeated over and over again. These individuals fully believe that their actions have an aim and purpose, and they consistently act this way, independent of their circumstances or surroundings. In other words, their actions are not triggered by anything, but are instead simply they way they operate.

Treatment

Living with OCD or OCPD can be difficult and even debilitating. Symptoms can wax and wane, getting better at times and worse at others. The good news for individuals who have either one (or both!) is that help is available. With appropriate treatment, these disorders can be managed to the point that the disruption to their lives is minimized. Treatment may involve a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and mindfulness techniques. To come to an informed diagnosis and find appropriate treatment, it is important to seek the care of a qualified mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. My door is always open to answer questions or offer therapy sessions. Click here to schedule with me today!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

Phobias: When Fear Becomes Debilitating

Scared woman covering mouth Free Photo

You are probably aware of the more common phobias, such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces). But did you know there are also words which describe the fear of dawn, glass, and poverty? Read on to learn the 411 on over 200 phobias in existence today.

I sometimes joke that I have arachnophobia. I hate spiders. I am honestly sheepish to admit how much they terrify me and that I often need help to get rid of them! I know that my fear is irrational, but I cannot help it. I also recognize that my small fear of spiders is nowhere near as debilitating as any of the actual phobias that an estimated 19 million Americans face. Today I want to give an overview of phobias and urge you, or anyone living in fear caused by a phobia, to get help.

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder that causes an individual to experience extreme, irrational fear about a situation, living creature, place, or object. The way you know you have a phobia is if you are organizing your life around avoiding whatever causes your fear. The impact of a phobia can range from annoying to severely disabling. People with phobias often realize their fear is irrational, but they are unable to do anything about it. Such fears can interfere with work, school, and personal relationships.

What causes a phobia? As with most mental illness, both genetic and environmental factors can play a part. For instance, a child who has a close relative with an anxiety disorder is at risk of developing a phobia. Distressing events, such as nearly drowning, can bring on a phobia. Exposure to confined spaces, extreme heights, and animal or insect bites can all be sources of phobias. People with ongoing medical conditions or health concerns often have phobias. There is also a high incidence of people developing phobias after traumatic brain injuries. Substance abuse and depression can often be connected to phobias.

We are most familiar with a phobia connected to a specific trigger, or a specific phobia. Aside from this, there are two additional types of phobias recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA):

  • Specific phobia. An intense, irrational fear of a specific trigger, like snakes, spiders, or heights. Specific phobias are known as simple phobias as they can be linked to an identifiable cause that may not frequently occur, thus not significantly affecting day-to-day life.
  • Social phobia or social anxiety: The idea of large social gatherings is terrifying for someone with social anxiety. This is a profound fear of public humiliation and being singled out or judged by others in a social situation. Social phobias are complex, as it is harder to avoid triggers, such as leaving the house or being in large crowds.
  • Agoraphobia: This is the fear of a situation that may cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed. You may fear using public transportation, being in open or enclosed spaces, standing in line, or being in a crowd. This is also a complex phobia because day-to-day life is surely affected.

Phobias are diagnosable mental disorders. There is hope in overcoming them! In saying so, I do not wish to minimize any one phobia. Phobias are more serious than simple fear sensations. Many individuals are aware that their phobia is irrational, but they cannot control the fear reaction. Some phobias may even cause physical symptoms like sweating and chest pains.

The beautiful news is that treatment is available. Phobias are much more widely understood today, and treatment often includes medication and behavioral therapy. If you have a phobia, it is critical that you seek treatment.  You do not need to live your life at the mercy of your fear! With treatment, you can learn to manage your phobia and live the happy, free and fulfilling life you want to. Please contact me today or click here to schedule your first session. You know I am more than happy to help!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

Resources:

Oxford Dictionaries: “List of Phobias”

Living with Anxiety: 5 Suggestions to Thrive

Living-with-Anxiety-Cluff-Counseling-Lewisville-Therapist

“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” -Leo Buscaglia

We all experience some level of anxiety from time to time. In fact, anxiety is a completely normal reaction to a stressful situation. The cold sweat of anxiety is the fight or flight response that kept our ancestors safe from grizzly bears and other dangers. That adrenaline rush still serves us well under some circumstances today; anxiety can even be helpful in certain instances! We worry about the common things in our lives–like finances, work, friends, and family–and this worry has the potential to help us make good decisions in these areas. Anxiety can motivate us, prepare us for things we have to face, and even give us energy to take action when we need to.

It is very possible, however, for anxiety to have an unmistakably negative affect. Serious anxiety may mean procrastinating to the point of being afraid to take a step at all. You may be so nervous about going to your child’s school to talk to the teacher that you do not go at all–you miss the appointment altogether. Your anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it interferes with day-to-day activities, it keeps you from going places, and from doing things you need to do. If you are experiencing worries that are excessive, uncontrollable, or irrational, and have been experiencing these worries for an extended period of time, you may be suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, or GAD.

Regardless of the level or intensity of anxiety you are experiencing, it is important that you manage it properly. Anxiety can take a serious toll on your mind and body. You may have trouble sleeping, eating, and concentrating. You may get headaches or have an upset stomach. You may even have a panic attack, a pounding heart, and/or a feeling of lightheadedness. So what can you do when you are feeling anxious? Here are five simple suggestions that you can do anytime, anywhere:

  1. Label your emotions. Figure out exactly what is bothering you by giving a name to what you are feeling. Naming an emotion is the first step in being mindful of it. This activates your prefrontal cortex and can help you balance and self-regulate by creating a relationship with the experience.
  2. Drop the story. Emotions are often driven by the stories you tell yourself. For example: You have an important presentation in class. Your anxiety escalates this assignment into a fantastically worrisome story where you mess up, everyone laughs at you, you fail the class, never graduate college, have to live with your parents forever… and on and on. My suggestion here is to drop the story. Separate the real risks and dangers that a situation presents and those your imagination is making worse. Cut out negative thoughts. No need to worry unnecessarily!
  3. Focus on the task at hand. What can you control? In the class presentation example, what you can control is your preparation and delivery. Try not to stress about peripheral factors–like how others may react or respond. It is a twist on the old adage: “Take control of the things you can, and accept those you can’t change.”
  4. Relax. Stop what you are doing and take deep breaths. Meditate. Do yoga or get some exercise–this is a terrific outlet for anxiety! As you focus on calming your mind and body, you will become more proficient with managing ongoing anxiety.
  5. Be kind to yourself. Feeling anxious is uncomfortable. A good dose of self-care can go a long way to bringing relief and perspective. This may mean practicing a hobby like painting, hiking, singing, baking, exercising, reading, taking a long bath or even sleeping. Whatever self-care looks like for you, make the time to take care of yourself.

Very often, it is possible to get past an anxiety cycle with the help of friends or family to help you sort out your problems. But when anxiety becomes overwhelming, it may be time for you to consider seeing a therapist, taking medication, or both. Anxiety is the most common mental illness among American adults–with women experiencing it at roughly twice the rate as men–and only half of those affected receive treatment.  Please do not be part of that statistic. Get the help you need and deserve in order to find happiness. Many of my clients face some form of anxiety, and I have been able to help them overcome the negative effects that come with this mental illness. If you or someone you care about could use help living with the effects of anxiety, please contact me today. Additionally, you can click here to schedule a session.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Making Room for Grief During the Holidays

This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life“Grief is two parts: The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.” -Anne Roiphe

Last month I wrote about what I referred to as the “trauma of surviving”–or learning to live life after losing someone dear to you. Such loss may be due to divorce, a move, death, or any other change that results in a separation from loved ones. This topic of grief and/or loneliness always seems to be increasingly relevant for many during the holiday season. In this post I will focus on these feelings, and how to let your grief have a healthy place in your life.

A friend of mine recently told me about a movie on Netflix called the Babadook. A widowed mother is plagued by the death of her husband and simultaneously battles with her son’s fear of a monster lurking in the house. Although this is supposed to be a scary movie, the ending is applicable and relatable to the topic at hand. As the mother in the film avoids facing the reality of her husband’s death, the presence of the monster grows, and the complications in her life amount. In the end we see the mother well put-together and clearly in a different, more positive state as she takes food down to the “monster” that has been banished to live in the basement.  She is feeding or acknowledging the monster–or her grief–and by so doing, it is appeased. It stops tormenting her. Its malevolent presence diminishes and she is able to figure out how to live a balanced, happy life even after the loss of her husband. She lets grief have a place in her life.

While I have not personally seen this movie, I love the parallels that can be made between the monster and grief. Avoiding grief and acting like it is not there can wreak havoc on our life. It can and will weaken us and our important relationships. We must first, acknowledge it and second, work through it.

Acknowledge it.

The “monster” in the Babadook terrorizes the mother right up until the end of the film. She struggles sleeping, maintaining friendships, holding a job, and even keeping the basic elements of her life together. In the same way, grief can eat away at you if it is given the chance. A person who is dealing with grief will most likely display some of the following emotional symptoms: Increased irritability, numbness, bitterness, detachment, preoccupation with loss, and inability to show or experience joy. While these emotional symptoms are normal in the days and weeks after a traumatic event, they can be indicators of a more serious disorder if they do not fade over time.

Grief is unavoidable after loss; the only way to overcome it is to give it place in your life–face it. Popular blogger Emily Meyers, a young mother of five, lost her husband to cancer and was left to care for their children on her own. She wrote a beautiful post about grief, and I have found great truth in these words:

“There is no ‘other side’ of grief. It’s never going to pass. You don’t ever ‘move on’ from it. You just learn to live with it. You absorb it. It becomes part of you. You simply adjust and change. You slowly but surely find how to navigate through your new normal with it. It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. I’ll say that again: It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. You stop waiting for the storm to pass, and instead, learn to dance in the rain.”

I have some clients who, like the mother in Babadook, try to simply ignore their grief and “move on” without facing it. But again, just as the mother in Babadook, this does not and cannot work. As Emily Meyers said, you cannot simply move on. You must learn to live with your grief.  You must acknowledge it. Do not expect to move on from a life-altering loss without allowing yourself to bereave or grieve. Yes, I am telling you to be sad–it is okay!

Work through it.

The loss of anything important to you–a relationship, a job, an opportunity, a loved one– can cause feelings of profound grief. Sadness around the holidays–or any time of year–is okay. It is perfectly understandable and 100% normal to feel like you are not “over” your loss. What is important is what you do with your sadness. Acknowledging it is the first step, and once you have done this, you will need to work through your grief and process your emotions. For some, this may mean crying, writing in a journal, participating in a therapeutic hobby or activity (like exercise), talking with a friend, or counseling with an experienced, licensed therapist. The most important thing is that you take the time to work through your difficult emotions because they do not go away on their own. In my experience, I have seen that simply burying or ignoring grief only exacerbates the problem when it actually does surface. And it is sure to!

If the holidays highlight your loneliness or the absence of a loved one, this time of year can be especially difficult. Many of my clients find themselves in a slump around the Christmas season, and struggle to find something to celebrate. My heart aches for those who are grieving this year. I advise you to take my counsel to heart and acknowledge, then work through your grief. I know that by so doing you will find a place for your grief and will then be able to find a healthy balance of grieving and living life to the fullest. And, as always, if you need help facing or working through your grief, please do not hesitate to contact me today or schedule a session.

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Getting Up With the Sun: Morning Routines

Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple, started his days off asking himself, “If today was the last day of my life, would I be happy with what I’m about to do today?” Ensure that you are starting your day off on the right foot with a productive morning routine!

You snoozed through your alarm to work out, woke up late, had no clean underwear, got toothpaste on your shirt, grabbed a fast, non-nutritious bite to eat, and rushed into work. You meant to wake up early, hit the gym, have a protein-packed breakfast, and beat the boss into work, but–yet again–it did not happen. Does this sound all too familiar? If you feel you are stuck in a cycle of good intentions and consistently disappointing follow-throughs, this post is for you. By making a few tweaks and additions to your morning, you can be on your way to a happier, healthier life–one where you are in control.

Last month I posted about nightly routines and promised to follow-up with a post on morning routines. We all know that starting the day off on the right foot is actually quite indicative of how the rest of the day will go. A morning ritual or routine can consist of many activities; whatever you choose, consistency in those activities is the key to jumpstart your day!

The hardest part of starting a morning routine is just that, getting started–both literally and figuratively. Do you know where to start? What type of morning ritual do you want to have in place? What types of things do you want to do? I scoured the internet and read blog posts about all sorts of morning routines, and I found the following six suggestions to be the most recurring:

  • THE GYM. We all know someone who is slightly smug about the fact that he/she made it to the gym before the sun arose. While getting exercise in to start the day does come with various health benefits, there is an additional benefit we all could use:  Focus. A friend of mine who has dealt with ADHD her entire life recently told me she got through the most stressful job she ever had by waking at 5 a.m. to go to barre class. It calmed her down, helped her focus, and allowed her to wean off coffee–which, in turn, reduced her jitters. Hit the gym in the a.m., or simply get out for a walk. You will never regret it.
  • MEDITATION. I have written about the benefits of meditation. Though often used to slow down and relax (before bed, for instance), it can also be used to focus the mind and prepare oneself for productivity. Whether your meditation includes actual yoga and stretching, prayer, spiritual study or simple breathing exercises, being in tune with your psyche will start your day off on the right foot. Meditation lowers stress levels and boost productivity and creativity.
  • NUTRITION. This one will be different for all of us depending on preferences and allergies. Some may have oatmeal, chia pudding, a green smoothie, or maybe it will be eggs, toast and sausage. Give yourself nutrient-rich food and you will be sure to notice heightened energy levels. Fuel up in preparation for a productive day. Take a few extra minutes and pack some healthy snacks to take with you. And don’t forget the vitamins!
  • APPEARANCE. My dad always showers at night because he likes to go to bed clean; but then, he will shower in the morning as well. Showering in the morning wakes him up and helps him feel refreshed, awake, and ready for the day. Whatever you choose, be sure to make time to get yourself looking and feeling presentable. Shower/wash your face, brush your teeth, do any necessary ironing, coordinate your outfit and accessories, so that you can leave your house feeling good and confident.
  • GAMEPLAN. Many nightly routines include making a plan, schedule, to-do-list, etc. for the next day. The reason for that is to streamline that process in the morning. During your morning ritual, review that game plan for the day, add in any specifics, and prepare yourself for any responsibilities you may have. Plan what you will need to take with you when you leave the house, as well as anything you may need throughout the day. This may seem obvious, but taking the time to sit and plan this step will help you feel less like a chicken with its head cut off as you haphazardly grab things while rushing out the door!
  • PRODUCTIVITY. Get right to work. Instead of wasting time idly catching up on your Facebook or Instagram feed (which has been proven to decrease overall motivation and productivity when done at the start of the day), get to work. Start your morning routine immediately.  It will reduce your stress!

Here is an example of a morning routine:
5:30 AM: Wake up, put on gym clothes, contacts, drink 8 oz. ice cold water
5:40 AM: Hit the gym (M/W/F: Weights; Tu/Th: Interval Cardio; Sa/Su: Walk)
6:40 AM: Return home, eat protein shake, shower, brush teeth, get dressed, etc.
7:10 AM: 20 minutes of meditation/prayer/spiritual study
7:30 AM: Review goals and day’s schedule, prepare to leave
7:45: Leave for work

Remember, this is just an example. Your morning routine should work best for you and your lifestyle, and should incorporate your goals. I have covered the basic suggestions to fuel productivity and focus throughout the day.  While this post contains six of the most frequently occurring ideas on the internet, there are so many other options out there! Through my research in writing this blog, I found a neat website, My Morning Routine, where you can sign up to receive a brand new morning routine idea in your inbox every Wednesday. The key is finding what works best for you and implementing that into a pattern you can consistently and happily follow. Should you find yourself with questions or desiring additional help, please don’t hesitate to contact me or schedule a session. And be sure to tune in next month as I talk about ways you can use your morning and nightly routines to help you reach your New Year’s goals!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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Cutting Shame Off at the Knees

Cutting Shame Off at the Knees - Cluff Counseling, Lewisville Marriage & Family Therapist“Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.” -Brené Brown

Regardless of age, gender or nationality, we all experience shame from time to time. Dr. Brené Brown, an author and researcher, explains in her book Daring Greatly, “The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.” And that is what I want to focus on today–cutting shame off at the knees.

Dr. Brené Brown has dedicated her career to researching shame and vulnerability. She describes shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. The dictionary defines shame as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. We all feel it; in fact, it was recently found that even babies can experience shame!

It is important to note that there is a distinction between shame and guilt. While shame means, I am bad, guilt means, I did something bad. Shame is debilitating, it can shut us down or emerge in ways destructive to ourselves and others. The remorse and regret that can come with guilt, on the other hand, can motivate us to make adjustments or restitution, and create new paths.

Let’s talk about real life examples of shame. How many of us have ever scrolled through social media to see someone doing something we wish we could do–affording a luxury vacation, building their dream home, accepting a prestigious position, holding a difficult yoga pose, cooking a beautiful multi-course meal for friends, reaching 10k followers, etc? We all have. What was our next thought? For many of us it is, I could never do that, I’m not smart, rich or talented enough! This is shame. Shame holds us back and debilitates is. It tells us we are “bad,” which can prevent us from changing or doing better. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change or progress. Further, it can lead to addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying. Because of the powerful implications of shame, we must identify our feelings of shame, understand them and build healthy coping skills against it! Here are five ways to cut shame off at the knees:

  • Bring shame to the light. Know what it is and what it feels like. Recognize when it sneaks into life. TALK about it. Awareness is the first step!
  • Recognize triggers. Shame is good at hitting us where we are vulnerable. A new mom who secretly feels out of her depth is more likely to feel shame when her parenting style is questioned. A husband who worries about providing may see his spouse’s comment about the neighbor’s new car as an attempt to shame him rather than an innocent observation. We must know where our armor is thin and work to strengthen and protect those areas.
  • Stop striving for perfection.  Dr. Brown has said that perfectionism is like a process addiction–the more you do it, the more you feel compelled to do it. Perfectionism is a common ailment among many of my clients, and it is corrosive. It tells us nothing we do is good enough…so why try?  Perfectionism and shame go hand-in-hand. When we work to stop one, we will find there is not room for the other!
  • Practice positive self-talk. The first option for positive self-talk is positive affirmations. These are powerful; by voicing what we believe (or want to believe) about who we are, and what we are capable of, can decrease our feelings of shame. By literally repeating something (out loud) enough we will start believing it. The second option is simply speaking more kindly to ourselves. If we were to talk to ourselves the way we would talk to our children…we would never speak to them as negatively as we do to ourselves! Be kind. Practice self-love through our inner dialogue.
  • Deeply root self-worth. If we define ourselves by what we do, we put the power of our happiness in the hands of others. When separate what we do from our sense of self-worth we will find freedom. When we are comfortable in our own skin, we can look at both praise and condemnation with the perspective each deserves, absorb any helpful critiques, and move on.

Shame is one of the most debilitating emotions humans can feel. It can stunt growth and corrode motivation. It is always looming. Unfortunately, we cannot “beat” or overcome shame once and be done with it. Instead, we must view our relationship with shame as ongoing: recognize when shame is creeping in (know our triggers), speak kindly to ourselves (affirmations), and remember that we are so much more than what we do or look like. Working to cut shame off at the knees is one of the most common subjects among my clients–everyone is feeling it! I fully understand that shame can get in the way of the important things and relationships in life. If you want to more fully understand how shame is holding you back, or if you have questions and would like additional help, I would be more than happy to assist you. Feel free to contact me or schedule a session!

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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