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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Self-Compassion: A Neglected Form of Self-Care

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~Buddha

When we look in the mirror, what do we see? We may notice our frizzy hair, crooked teeth, short eyelashes, thin lips, uneven eyebrows or a plethora of other things. Yet when others look at us, they are more prone to see what we overlook–that we are friendly, optimistic, outgoing, hard working, strong, resilient, creative, kind, sensitive, thoughtful… Why are we so much harder on ourselves than we are on others?!

I recently opened a “Marriage Minute” email from the Gottman Institute and read about self-love. This is something that has been on my mind over the last several weeks, and I thought it would be helpful to dedicate a post to a powerful form of self-care that we often overlook: Self-compassion.

Compassion itself is defined as the sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Compassion literally means to “suffer with.” In order to have compassion, we must first notice that someone is suffering, and then we feel moved by their suffering so that our hearts respond to their pain. When we extend compassion, we feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means we offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Compassion is the realization that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience.

Even though we all need it, self-compassion is so much easier to show someone else than it is to show ourselves! The time has come to focus on extending this kind of compassion to others as well as ourselves.

Practicing compassion towards ourselves is really no different from having compassion for someone else. Self-compassion is…

  • Acting the same way towards ourselves as we do others when we are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something we do not like about ourselves.
  • Being gentle with ourselves when confronted with painful experiences.
  • Cutting ourselves some slack instead of ignoring pain or judging ourselves harshly.
  • Being kind and understanding when confronted with imperfections.
  • Being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating (punishing) ourselves with self-criticism.
  • Recognizing that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable.

To be clear, self-compassion is NOT self-pity (being immersed in our own problems), self-indulgence (unrestrained gratification of our desires), or self-esteem (our perceived sense of worth or value).  

Ultimately, self-compassion is an ongoing process of honoring and accepting our humanness, and recognizing that things will not always go our way. It is knowing that we will inevitably encounter frustrations, make mistakes, and fall short of our ideals. This is the human condition–a reality shared by all of us! The more we open our hearts to this fact–instead of constantly fighting against it–the more we will be able to feel compassion for ourselves and all our fellow humans in the experience of life.

Here is my challenge to you: The next time you are tempted to put yourself down, practice self-compassion instead. Recognize that you are doing your best, and that your effort is what counts. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Celebrate your progress. Be kind to yourself. I can assure you that implementing more compassion (towards yourself) into your life will have a powerful and positive effect on how you view yourself, others, and the world. Should you find that you need help working through self-deprecation, please do not hesitate to contact me today. I am always accepting new clients!

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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Practical Ways to Practice Mental Hygiene

Mental Hygeine - Cluff Counseling, Lewisville Marriage & Family TherapistOver the last few years, much progress has been made in understanding how to take care of ourselves physically–we see the value in exercising, eating healthy, and taking advantage of modern medicine. We believe in maintaining our physical hygiene and encourage our children to take care of themselves, too. But are you doing anything to take care of your minds?

Let’s change that!

Think about it. Once or twice a day we brush our teeth–even before there is a cavity. We exercise regularly and we try to eat a balanced diet because we know it is good for our heart health and our bodies in general. We wear sunscreen to prevent skin cancer. We eat vitamins to  ensure we are getting the necessary nutrients. All this to maintain our physical health. But what are we doing for our mental hygiene?

Just like doctors who take care of us physically, psychologists and therapists are most certainly available when there is a mental health problem. Yes, therapists and psychologists are trained to understand mental illness and a certain level of dysfunction, but what can we preemptively do to take care of our mental health…before there is a problem necessitating a trained individual? In this blog post, I will first define mental hygiene, explain why it is necessary to maintain, and I will end by giving some ideas for how to stay on top of your mental health.

What is mental hygiene?

We need to take care of our minds just as much as we need to take care of our bodies!  Mental hygiene is simple. Basically, it entails redirecting your thoughts to be more uplifting and positive, managing stress in a productive manner, and having a healthy inner dialogue. Allowing anything that is uplifting and good into your life is practicing mental hygiene. It is focusing on the good instead of lingering on the negative. You might find that this is best done for you through praying, meditating, getting out in nature, or maybe you are unsure. Keeping up on your mental hygiene will prepare you for and help prevent the roadblocks of failure, rejection, and disappointment that life will inevitably deliver. Read on for strategies on how to practice mental hygiene, which will help you recover from mental injuries as well as develop mental resilience.

Why practice mental hygiene?

Life is hard. There are certain experiences we all go through that may be roadblocks to positive mental health, but we can recover from them if we practice good mental hygiene. The first roadblock to positive mental health I would like to mention is failure. Our initial inclination is to make excuses, retreat, or give up. But if we are actively trying to practice healthy mental hygiene, we can instead recognize and remember that failure is an incredibly valuable teacher and we will all experience failure at some point. Then, we can evaluate why we failed and make a plan for success in the future. See the difference? By practicing healthy mental hygiene, we can have a healthy mindset around failure even before we fail and sets us up nicely to respond to failure in a healthy manner in the future (because we are sure to face it again!).

The second inevitable roadblock to positive mental health is rejection and judgement. Unfortunately, we all judge because it is part of our human nature. And sometimes that judgement is pointed at us. When other people judge or dislike us, it hurts. Our natural tendency is to get defensive or reflect those negative feelings onto others. What practicing good mental hygiene means here is that we will remember that other people’s opinions are the variable…not us! If someone does not like us, that absolutely does not mean we are not loveable!  Instead of getting defensive and upset by what other people think about us, we will focus on positive emotions, take their criticisms constructively, and remember our self worth. Practicing good mental hygiene means that we will be able to separate our worth from what people think about us–which is hard and takes practice.

The final roadblock practicing good mental hygiene can prepare us for is disappointment. Whether this disappointment is unmet expectations or tragic news (like sickness, death, financial instability, infidelity, etc), it is bound to happen at some point or another. Our natural tendency is to respond poorly, possibly even shut down or shut others out. But if we are practicing healthy mental hygiene, we can respond in a positive way, manage our stress effectively, self-regulate or manage our emotions. It is impossible to prepare for this type of mental roadblock specifically, but we can prepare for how we will respond by taking care of our mental health. This means that we must know how we react in stressful situations, be able to practice gratitude during difficult times, ask for help, find an outlet, and many other possibilities.

How do I practice mental hygiene?

You might be feeling like you have no idea how to take care of your mental hygiene. I understand that mental hygiene might seem like a new idea even still, but there are so many things you might already be doing or want to be doing that will help you take care of your mental health. The following list of ideas will provide simple ideas on how you can start to improve your mental health today:

  1. Focus on the good things in your life.
  2. Track gratitude and achievement in a journal.
  3. Set up a getaway (check out this post from last week on how traveling will benefit your relationship!).
  4. Use your talents/strengths.
  5. Mindfully set some goals.
  6. Get creative! Try a new recipe, paint, pick up an instrument…
  7. Make someone else feel loved (cue Love Languages).
  8. Eat dark chocolate. Seriously, it boost brain power!
  9. Open up. Whether it is to your partner or a confidant, on social media, in a journal, or with a therapist, do not bottle up your emotions.
  10. Color. Yes, it may seem childish, but it will help clear your mind.
  11. Laugh. Comedic relief is real.
  12. Unplug. Try doing a digital detox or going off the grid to get some clarity.
  13. Dance. It truly reduces cortisol, the stress hormone!
  14. Take a warm bath.
  15. Do animal therapy. Fuzzy friends always make everything better.
  16. Tour your own town.
  17. Meal plan and prep. It will offer some control over your week!
  18. Practice forgiveness. The people who forgive have better mental health and report being more satisfied with their lives.
  19. Smile. It really helps!
  20. Send a thank you note.
  21. Exercise or get outside.
  22. Get some sun. Vitamin D is a mood elevator.
  23. Eat well, drink lots of H20, and avoid drugs and alcohol.
  24. Surround yourself with good people.
  25. Quiet your mind.
  26. Practice positive affirmations.
  27. Sleep!

Does mental hygiene make a little more sense now? Another term for practicing mental hygiene is mindfulness. Taking care of our minds is something we need to do each and every day; all of the suggestions above can be carried out regularly and will not require much time or money to accomplish. When you find what works for you, try to incorporate that good habit into your life–make it a regular practice. I assure you that you will feel its effects in your life!

And as always, one of the best things you can do for your mental health is to get help. Even before there is an actual problem–or a mental illness. Get help. Trusting a licensed, experienced therapist can be one of the healthiest things you will ever do for your mental health. Contact me with questions or click here to schedule a session today.

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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Emotional Support Animals At a Glance

Emotional Support Animals - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville TherapistEmotional Support Animals (ESA) are no ordinary pets! They serve to stabilize and/or maintain the emotional or mental health of their owner and their role is vital! I am a proponent for emotional support animals when they can truly fill an individual’s needs. Read on to learn more!

It is estimated that 68% of U.S. households (or 85 million families) own a pet. There are some instances, however, where the animal is more than just a “pet.” In these cases, the individuals rely heavily on their animal for mental and/or emotional support. Their animals are called Emotional Support Animals, and they play an important role in the very livelihood and stability of their owner(s). This post will be all about Emotional Support Animals and hopefully will answer your basic questions about Emotional Support Animals.

What exactly is an Emotional Support Animal (ESA)?

An emotional support animal (ESA) is a companion animal that a medical professional has determined provides benefit for an individual with a disability or mental illness. The goal is for the ESA to help with or improve at least one characteristic of the disability.

Who can have an ESA?

In order to be prescribed an Emotional Support Animal, the person must have a) A verifiable disability, and b) A note from a physician or other medical professional (stating that the person has that disability and that the emotional support animal provides a benefit for the individual with the disability). ESA are typically used when the owner struggles with depression, mental health issues, autism, aspergers, psychotic disorders, or is a veteran/military individual dealing with PTSD.

When applying for housing with an ESA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) asks two questions:

  1. Does the person seeking to use and live with the animal have a disability — i.e., a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities?
  2. Does the person making the request have a disability-related need for an assistance animal? In other words, does the animal work, provide assistance, perform tasks or services for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provide emotional support that alleviates one or more of the identified symptoms or effects of a person’s existing disability?

Answering “no” to either of these questions means that a housing provider is not obligated to make a reasonable accommodation according to HUD. This may mean that the person does not meet the definition of disability or that the assistance animal does not help with symptoms of the disability. If the answer is “yes” to both, then HUD states the FHA requires an exception to a ‘no pets’ rule.

How does an animal become an ESA?

An animal does not need specific training to become an emotional support animal. There are several websites online where you can go to register your animal. Some organizations will send you a card, a bib for the animal, and/or packets of information (depending on how much you pay). Many of these organizations are not monitored by the government, however, so I recommend choosing one carefully so as to not get scammed.

Are Emotional Support Animals ONLY dogs?

While dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, other animals can also be used for this purpose. Sometimes cats or other animals may be used by people with a range of physical, psychiatric, or intellectual disabilities. There was a case in 2012 where a guinea pig was used as an ESA, and another in 2015 where a miniature horse was filed as an ESA. All that matters is that the animal needs to alleviate the burdens that come from physical, emotional or mental illness. Obviously, any animal that poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others would be questionable (a wild or exotic animal that poses a greater risk of attack or disease to other residents could be denied based on this reason). The key indicator is whether or not the animal alleviates some part of the disability or mental illness.

Is there a difference between an Emotional Support Animal and a Service Dog?

Emotional Support Animals are animals that provide therapeutic benefits to their owner through affection and companionship, where a Service Dog is specially trained to perform a task to help someone with a disability. For example, a blind individual will likely have a seeing eye dog–a Service Dog with training and a very specific function. Other examples include pulling a wheelchair or responding to seizures. Emotional Support Animals, however, do not need specialized training to handle a task. Further, Emotional Support Animals come in different breeds and animal types and are not just limited to dogs, while Service Animals are either dogs or horses.

Can I have more than one ESA?

Although I have not seen any cases dealing with the issue of multiple emotional support animals, the basic requirements for this reasonable accommodation would be the same. If a person were to claim the need for multiple emotional support animals, he/she would need documentation supporting this need from his or her physician or medical professional. The practitioner would need to provide documentation that each support animal alleviated some symptom of the disability.

WARNING

Unfortunately, people sometimes take advantage of the Emotional Support Animal system… using their “ESA” to get out of paying pet deposits, getting into certain housing where animals typically are not allowed, or even trying to fly for free with them. In an article, from The New Yorker, the author takes a turtle, a snake, a turkey, an alpaca, and a pig (separately!) all over New York and was allowed access to all things “non-pet” because she claimed (and showed fake letters from her “therapist”–an online reference who sent a letter over after she paid $140 to be evaluated) that these were here Emotional Support Animals. I want to be clear–while there are benefits of having an Emotional Support Animal, those should not be the driving force behind having an ESA. The intended use for these animals is to alleviate discomfort and provide meaningful companionship to those who truly need it. I do not condone cheating the system, but I fully support the idea behind and purpose of having an Emotional Support Animal.

It is possible that you or someone you care about could find an Emotional Support Animal extremely helpful in dealing with mental illness or disability. I urge you to contact me with questions or schedule an appointment today and we can discuss whether or not an ESA could meet your needs. I have seen Emotional Support Animals do great work and provide much needed comfort and stability to those grasping at straws for relief. Animals are smart and intuitive, and having an ESA can add much needed comfort and stability in the lives of those who so desperately need it.

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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The Beauty of Journaling

Cluff Counseling - The Beauty of JournalingSome of the most influential people in history kept detailed journals of their lives. Those journals are both a permanent record for posterity, as well as a cathartic release for the people writing them. Even if you don’t think you need either, keeping a journal has benefits you can enjoy immediately.

Imagine you had a friend you could share everything with–literally everything: when you feel frustrated or hurt by your partner, when you are stressed because of work, when you feel guilty after making a mistake or hurting someone else, or even just when you feel discouraged because of social media comparisons. Yes, you may have a friend, family member, or a partner in whom you can confide, but that person may not always be available and/or what you are facing may be too private, at times, to discuss with others. This is the beauty of journaling.

Journaling is powerful. It is an incredible tool that we can tap into when life is overwhelming, wonderful, or anything in between. When stressful events occur, writing through emotions and feelings has long been known to cause improvements in health and psychological well-being. This is because expressive writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory. In addition to stress management, these enhancements free up our cognitive resources for other mental activities. There are so many positive benefits to journaling, but today I would like to focus on the following four:

  1. Journaling helps you organize. To do’s, goals, and dreams come out while journaling; it is all part of your stream of consciousness. Not only that, but if you are facing a problem in life, journaling can help you problem solve. A clear plan of action often surfaces when journaling, which is so helpful if you are feeling scattered, disorganized, or overwhelmed!
  2. Journaling clears your emotions. As you write freely in your journal, you will experience reduced feelings of scatteredness, increase focus and stability, release pent-up feelings and emotions, bridge outer events and inner thinking, and detach from the past. There is no greater way to be present in day-to-day life than to regularly clear your emotions and start with a clean slate. In fact, you can even reduce your stress by journaling!
  3. Journaling solidifies learning. I cannot tell you how many times I have read something I learned but had forgotten from my own journal. Writing down experiences and lessons learned reinforces them, and enables you to remember details you might not otherwise remember.
  4. Journaling leads to gratitude. No matter what mood you are in when you begin writing, journaling has the power to naturally steer you towards thankfulness–towards appreciating what you do have and strengths you do possess. When we pause to consider all the good in our life (and I recommend taking the time to write down your gratitude list), a cascading effect occurs and we inevitably realize we have more than we originally considered.

So how can you get started? There are infinite options! In the resources section below, I included one of my favorite possibilities, “The Five Minute Journal.” There are prompts divided into a morning section (to start your day off awesome), as well as a night section (to reflect on what happened throughout the day). Prompts include things like, “I am grateful for…,” “What would make today great..?” “Daily affirmations: I am…,” “3 amazing things that happened today,” and, “How could I have made today better…?” These prompts foster meaningful thought and do not take much time to answer.  A quick google search will render many additional ideas on how you can get started writing in your journal today.

There is great power in picking up a pen and writing freely in your journal for a few minutes every day. While some sources recommend writing for 20-30 minutes at least once day, I often tell my clients to start with what feels natural. If you want to write for five minutes at the start of your day, try it. If you prefer summarizing the day before going to bed, go for it! I recently started bullet journaling because it seemed easier than paragraphs; though many of my entries morph into traditional journaling format, I enjoy following what feels natural to me. Let your creativity run free and journal the way that feels most natural to you–that is how you will get the most out of it. If you have questions about journaling or would like to schedule a session, please do not hesitate to contact me or set up a session today!

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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The Positive Influence of Affirmations

 

Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” The way you talk to yourself can determine how you live. Incorporating positive affirmations into your daily walk and talk can profoundly influence the course of your life!

Do you realize how much you talk to yourself? You may be driving alone in your car, thinking about an interaction with a friend, and think, “I was stupid to say that”; or maybe you are looking in the mirror before a date and say, “I wish I felt more attractive.” Affirmations are sentences aimed to affect the conscious and the subconscious mind.  Every word we say to ourselves is an affirmation–the sad truth is that the majority of things we say to ourselves is negative. We focus on what we cannot do, what we are not, and what we do not look like. It is incredibly easy to get down on ourselves and practice negative self-talk. After all, we are our worst critics!

How you talk to yourself influences how you feel about and see yourself. You may not realize how poorly you treat yourself until you start observing your self-talk. Can you imagine saying half of the things you say to the mirror to your child or your partner? Never! How we perceive and talk about ourselves and our situations set the precedent for how we live and interact with others. Not only that, a study was done in 2010 at the University of Arizona where researchers found that the power of positive thinking could beat depressive thoughts. By saying positive affirmations, subjects were able to change their thought processes, and some even reported that affirmations were the most influential part of their recovery process! Practicing positive affirmations can help us consciously flip the switch to start being the person we want to become.

Now let’s talk about how we can use our inner dialogue to build–rather than tear down–our self esteem. A positive affirmation is a brief statement, worded in the positive, said with confidence that can help you make significant changes in your life.  Okay so what do you do with these thoughts? Here are three steps to get you started:

  1. Consider your positive traits or abilities. Like I previously mentioned, we are our worst critics. We are so hard on ourselves; we only see where we lack, what we cannot do, how not skinny or smart we are, etc (especially in this day and age of social media, our negative comparisons are endless!). But you are unlike anyone else; there is only one you in the world. What are you good at? What makes you special? Write a little list of these qualities and make them into “I am…” or “I can”  statements. Examples: I am strong; I can learn new things; I am determined, I am hard-working; I am relentless; I am connected and comfortable in all environments, with all people; I find and enjoy the simple pleasures life is offering right now;
  2. Replace negative self-talk with your personalized affirmations. The moment you start paying attention to your inner-dialogue, you will notice how down on yourself you are. Make a sincere effort to cut out negativity towards yourself and instead build yourself up. Next time you are feeling discouraged thinking, “I will never be able to do that..” or, “I will never be good enough…”, instead say one of your positive affirmations. Examples: My challenges bring opportunities; I love myself and who I am; I love myself unconditionally; I allow only healthy and loving relationships into my life; How I feel matters, therefore I concentrate on aspects of life that make me feel good!; My mood creates a physiological response in my body. I am peaceful and positive!; I am in control of my thoughts and my life.
  3. Rewrite and repeat your affirmations daily. Watch this YouTube video of a father practicing affirmations with his daughter before she goes to school. This is a great example of how to start your day; look yourself in the mirror and build yourself up! Imagine the power that would come to you if you began every day this way! Whether you practice affirmations at the beginning of the day, at the end of the day, or all throughout the day, be consistent. You might even consider writing your affirmations down on notecards or post-its scattered throughout your living and working spaces. Seeing these positive statements will only help reinforce and solidify them in your mind.

These three steps are simple: Focus on what you can do, stop putting yourself down, and regularly affirm yourself. As you begin to think about specific thoughts about your, over and over again, those thoughts will become beliefs and reality. Instead of limiting yourself with demeaning thought processes, make changes today that will enable you to reach your full potential. As you build yourself up, you will see that the small steps of adding positive affirmations into your life will influence you for the better. You will be a happier person, more comfortable in your own skin, and you will see that life is full of opportunities you can handle. After all, that’s the truth!

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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Fork Your Way Into a Healthy 2018!

Healthy Eating Self Care - Cluff Counseling, Denton TherapistDid you know that around 160 million Americans are either obese or overweight? This scary statistic includes 30% of boys and girls under age 20! By understanding what specifically our bodies really need, we can aim to lead and maintain a healthy lifestyle–both physically and mentally.

Many of my clients have goals for 2018 that include improving their physical appearance by focusing on a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting more sleep, and boosting their stress management. While I am not a licensed health coach, this is pertinent information to me because physical health is closely tied to mental health. I, like you, am also working on bettering my diet and exercise regime in 2018. I follow several fitness accounts on Instagram for inspiration; just tonight, @soheefit shared her secret that slimmed her waist…There is no secret! The way we will see results is by eating well, exercising often, and regulating sleep and stress. We often fall prey to the latest trick or the newest laser therapy or the groundbreaking diet we hear about from friends or on social media, but, at the end of the day, those methods are not healthy or sustainable. We need to make lasting changes to our nutrition and exercising habits in order to see results. This is not news to you!

Have you ever felt discouraged or depressed, and gone for a walk or a hike? If so, it is likely you noticed that your emotional state improved as you got fresh air and let your heart rate increase a little bit. Our physical health directly affects our mental health. When we take care of our bodies, they take care of us. What specifically are you going to do in 2018 to take care of yourself (both physical and mental)? Exactly which “healthy habits” do you need to work on developing? As I mentioned previously, the three main things that influence our overall weight gain are: Diet/nutrition, exercise, and sleep/stress management. For the purpose of this blog, I want to focus on the first: diet and nutrition. Brian Regan, a comedian, has a skit where he mocks the food pyramid, saying nobody knows what on earth “legumes” are, and he pokes fun of the serving sizes saying no one actually keeps track of or ingests 6-11 servings of grains.

First, let’s clear the air about the “d” word…DIET. It is a dreaded word for many of us–especially those who have tried the South Beach Diet, a low-carb diet, SlimFast, Whole30, Jenny Craig, or any of the other millions of diet plans available nowadays. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that dieting typically does not work. Abstaining from eating major food groups is unhealthy, weight lost from pendulum dieting often comes back full-force, and then you feel overweight and discouraged. My recommendation is to fill your plate and your body with healthy options, while still enjoying what you are ingesting. Food is meant to be enjoyed! Take a moment to consider what you are eating and if it is what your body really needs.

In 2011, 19 years of food pyramid illustrations and teachings were laid to rest with an updated nutrition guide called MyPlate (see graphic below). MyPlate depicts a place setting with the recommended serving sizes for fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy, to help us visualize exactly how much of which foods our body needs. The following are specific ideas for each food group, to help you get creative with what goes on your fork:

Choose My Plate - Cluff Counseling, Denton Therapy

 

  1. FRUITS: Adults ages 18-30 should eat around 2 cups of fruit a day. Fruits may be fresh, canned, frozen, or dried, and may be whole, cut-up, juiced, or pureed. (Click here to see a comprehensive list of the fruit options).
  2. VEGETABLES: Adults ages 19-50 should be eating between 2½ -3 cups of raw or cooked, fresh, frozen, canned, dried/dehydrated, whole, cut-up, or mashed vegetables each day. Vegetables are organized into 5 subgroups: dark-green vegetables, starchy vegetables, red and orange vegetables, beans and peas, and other vegetables.  (Click here to see a comprehensive list of all the vegetables you never even knew existed).
  3. PROTEINS: I think protein is the hardest to come up with ideas for (“um…protein powder?”). All lean cut and deli meats are protein, as well as beans, lentils, tofu, eggs, nuts, and seafood.  (Click on this link for the complete list of protein options as recommended by the USDA). Having an adequate amount of protein in your diet can often curb cravings and keep you full longer, which makes a world of difference in forming healthy habits!
  4. GRAINS: All bread, pasta, oatmeal, breakfast cereals, tortillas, and grits are examples of grain products. There are two types of grains: Whole Grains and Refined Grains–we want more Whole Grains than Refined Grains. Whole Grains contain the entire grain kernel ― the bran, germ, and endosperm, while Refined Grains have been refined to have the bran and germ removed. Aim for eating whole wheat bread/rolls/tortillas, quinoa, oats, and brown rice (click here for the full list of grains). Little changes to the base of your diet and nutrition–your grains–will make a huge difference!
  5. DAIRY: Milk, cheese, yogurt, and milk-based desserts (ice cream, frozen yogurt, smoothies, sherbert) are some of the common foods that make up this food group. (Please click on this link for a thorough list of all possible dairy foods!) Men and women ages 19-50 need three cups of dairy each day–be sure to choose low-fat or fat-free options for the Dairy Group!

We live in a culture that often convinces us certain foods are either good or bad (which is a key component in eating disorders!) and that we are either a good or bad person based on what we eat. Carbs are not bad. Meat is not bad. Milk is not bad. Our bodies need the vitamins and nutrients available in each of the food groups, and–as we eat from each food group in moderation–we will find our way to a healthier lifestyle. Eating a well-rounded diet will affect the overall health of your internal organs, your cholesterol, energy level, self-esteem, skin health, relationships…basically your entire life. You know what they say, “Fuel well, feel well!”

Maybe you have a New Year’s Resolution pertaining to your physical appearance this year. The goal should not be getting thin, but getting healthy. Get healthy eating better in 2018. Start today by improving what is on your plate. Make it well-rounded, make it low-fat, make it healthy, make it fun! Eating healthy does not have to be a drag. You can do it! The good news is that you do not have to do it alone. If you need support to explore your relationship with food, contact me today and allow me to coach you through the process.

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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Eating Disorders 101

Eating Disorders - Cluff Counseling, Denton TherapistUp to 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. Understanding this epidemic is the first step to getting help–either for yourself or for someone you care about.

Everywhere we look we see ads, movies, tv shows, billboards, and models all flaunting perfect bodies: skinny legs, impressive thigh gaps, flat tummies, chiseled abs, massive biceps. With social media at our fingertips, it is easy to compare our body to what we see in the media. Other times, social comparisons are not at the root of an eating disorder–it may be that you are watching you parents go through a divorce, or you did not make the cut onto the Varsity team, so you look for an outlet to feel some sort of control over your life. When controlling your food intake becomes extreme or obsessive, it is called an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are very serious; many young women and men die each year from complications associated with their disorder. Both genders can develop an eating disorder, although rates among women are higher than among men. Eating disorders frequently appear during the teen years or young adulthood but may also develop during childhood or later in life.

Eating disorders are psychological conditions with both physical and emotional symptoms. The three most common eating disorders include anorexia nervosa (voluntary starvation), bulimia nervosa (binge-eating followed by purging), and binge-eating disorder (binge-eating without purging). Today, we will take a deeper look at each of these three types of eating disorders and discuss how to overcome them.

Anorexia nervosa
Those with anorexia nervosa see themselves as overweight, even when they are dangerously underweight. People with anorexia nervosa weigh themselves repeatedly, severely restrict the amount of food they eat, and eat tiny quantities of a small variety of foods.  They relentlessly pursue thinness–it consumes their life. Common symptoms seen in those with anorexia is an intense fear of gaining weight, distorted body image, low self-esteem (one that is heavily influenced by perceptions of body weight and shape), and a denial of the seriousness of his/her low body weight. The long-term effects of anorexia include but are not limited to infertility, thinning of the bones, anemia, muscle weakness, brittle hair and nails, severe constipation, low blood pressure, damage to the heart, brain damage, and multiorgan failure.

Bulimia nervosa
The next eating disorder I would like to discuss is bulimia. This is where the individual eats excessively large amounts of food and then purges by vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, fasting, excessive exercise, or a combination of these behaviors. Unlike anorexia nervosa, those with bulimia nervosa usually maintain a healthy or relatively normal weight. Their binging and purging behavior gives them a feeling of control. Some of the negative symptoms include an inflamed sore throat, swollen salivary glands, worn tooth enamel (plus increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth as a result of exposure to stomach acid), acid reflux disorder, gastrointestinal problems, intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse, dehydration from purging of fluids, and electrolyte imbalance (which can lead to stroke or heart attack).

Binge-eating disorder
Like the other types of eating disorders, binge-eating disorder involves a person completely losing control over his/her food intake. Unlike bulimia nervosa, periods of binge-eating are not followed by purging, excessive exercise, or fasting. Thus, those with binge-eating disorder often are overweight or obese. Binge-eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States. Symptoms include eating unusually large amounts of food in a specific amount of time, eating even when he/she is full or not hungry, eating fast, eating until he/she is uncomfortably full, and eating alone or in secret to avoid embarrassment.

An eating disorder is considered a process addiction, meaning the person is dependent upon a behavior– instead of a substance– for power, control, or satisfaction. I have worked with many patients who struggle with various types of addiction, and I know that recovery is possible. When a mental illness (such as depression or anxiety) is present along with the eating disorder, medication may be needed. Lasting recovery for eating disorders may also include regularly working with a dietician in order to establish and maintain a personalized, healthy goal for caloric intake. These actions, coupled with regular counseling from a qualified therapist, will address the physical and emotional factors of the eating disorder, and can lead to a full recovery.

The earlier an eating disorder is detected and the sooner help is sought, the greater the chance for a full recovery. If you or someone you care about struggles with an eating disorder, now is the time to make a change. Health, happiness, and recovery is possible, and I am here to help. Please contact me today or click here to set up your first 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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Willpower: The Powerful Pre-Step in Addiction Recovery

Willpower - The Powerful Pre-Step in Addiction Recovery - Cluff Counseling, Denton Marriage & Family TherapyAccording to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2007, 20.8 million persons (8.4 percent of the population aged 12 or older) needed treatment for a substance problem, but did not receive it. As addicts try to stop their addictive behaviors, they may cut ties with their friends, avoid certain establishments, and purge themselves of their addictive substances or actions. But, more often than not, their actions do not last and the addict falls back into the cycle of addiction. Willpower needs to be coupled with additional resources in order to lead to lasting change.

Willpower is defined as control of one’s impulses and actions. In the context of addiction recovery, willpower is the choices and the efforts the addict makes to break addictive habits. Examples of exercising willpower to get on the road of addiction recovery could be avoiding certain people or places that encourage deviant behavior, discarding any substances or items that promote further addiction, and getting outside support for addiction recovery. Willpower is an essential step to get you started in the addiction recovery process, but it is not enough, on its own, for lasting change.

When my friend was little, she fell off the high beam at gymnastics and broke her arm. She was unable to go to class, let alone tumble or do anything active for several months. As much as she wanted to be well and healed, she could not make that happen on her own. She had to rely on doctors to prescribe proper methods for healing, a cast to set the boundaries, and time to allow her bones to transition back into place. Her willpower was not enough to heal her.

This example may seem quite obvious and somewhat silly in the context of a broken arm, but the same principle applies in the context of addiction recovery–outside help is needed. There will be times when more is needed than just our willpower. Sometimes, healing and recovery is out of our control and we need help. Sometimes we need to rely on qualified doctors or therapists to help us find balance and proper health. Sometimes we need a cast–or set rules/boundaries–to keep us out of harm’s way. Sometimes we need to rely on a support system of family and friends so we are not alone in recovery and can fall back on and be accountable to them. When these tools are used in unison with your willpower, lasting addiction recovery can occur.

All recovery programs that I know of call on the addict to recognize his/her powerlessness and to ask for help. Ironically enough, by surrendering his/her will and recognizing that he/she does not have all the answers, addicts find the will to recover. Asking for help is key. Let me highlight two resources that can bolster your willpower:

  1. Family and close friends. They love you and want what is best for you. Not only that, but your family and closest friends are the people who see you most, who are in regular contact with you, and can help you during moments of weakness. They can provide accountability and are readily available to help during those especially tough days.
  2. A licensed, qualified therapist. When my friend broke her arm, she received help from a professional who was experienced, knowledgeable, and had tools to properly diagnose her injury and give her a personalized plan for recovery. A therapist is your emotional doctor; I have spent years working with those struggling with addiction. I can help you.

By letting family and close friends, and a therapist help you in your journey, you will find strength in numbers, which will aid you greatly as you continue to seek recovery.

Many of my clients battle with some form of addiction. Whether they are addicted to drugs, food, substances, pornography, sex, or something else, I greatly admire them for seeking help. Their desire to change is the essential pre-step to addiction recovery. The desire to improve, to make lasting changes, and to leave behind destructive habits and behaviors must come from the addict him/herself in order for it to be lasting. Your willpower will carry you through those moments of weakness, push you attend counseling sessions, and keep you away from people or places that could threaten your progress. Willpower is just that–POWER. Make that step today and channel your willpower to help you overcome addiction.

Now is the time to channel your willpower and use the resources around you–namely your support system of family and close friends, as well as the help of an experienced counselor. Contact me today or set up your first session to get yourself onto the path of addiction recovery that will help you make lasting changes.

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

Resources: