Clear and Present Danger: Teens and Vaping

“We see clear signs that youth use of electronic cigarettes has reached an epidemic proportion, and we must adjust certain aspects of our comprehensive strategy to stem this clear and present danger.” ~ FDA, September, 2018

There’s a new cool kid on the block according to statistics published by Child Mind Institute. Smoking cigarettes has taken a backseat to the accessible and underestimated–yet still highly addictive–e-cigarette. E-cigarettes are now the most frequently used tobacco product among adolescents; some 2.1 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in 2017! This is far surpassing traditional combustible cigarettes. What is the e-cigarette? How does it work? Is it harmful? Because so many individuals are using these devices, it is important to be educated on this new behavior, especially popular amongst teens and young adults.

What is vaping?

Vaping devices include e-cigarettes, vape pens and advanced personal vaporizers (also known as ‘MODS’). When the device is used, the battery heats up the heating component, which turns the contents of the e-liquid into an aerosol that is inhaled into the lungs and then exhaled. Vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling the aerosol, commonly referred to as vapor, which is produced by an e-cigarette. The difference between traditional tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes is that e-cigs do not contain nor produce tobacco smoke, but rather an aerosol. The vapor created by e-cigarettes consists of many fine particles which contain varying amounts of toxic chemicals that have been linked to cancer, as well as respiratory and heart disease.

E-cigarettes look like regular cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. Some look like USB flash drives, pens, and other everyday items. E-cigarettes have many names, including e-cigs, JUUL (JUUL Labs, Inc. is the name of the leading electronic-cigarette company), ENDS (electronic nicotine delivery systems), e-hookah, and so much more. JUUL, the newest and most popular vape device, is sleek and tiny (reminiscent of a flash drive), and can be charged in a USB port. It comes in several enticing flavors like crème brûlée, mango and fruit medley. Every JUUL product contains a dose of nicotine, with one pod or flavor cartridge containing about the same amount of nicotine as a whole pack of cigarettes. The JUUL’s subtle design makes it easy to hide, which certainly explains why it has become so popular among middle and high school students. It now accounts for about 72 percent of the market share of vaping products in the United States and more than half of the e-cigarette market. E-cigarette company, JUUL Labs, Inc. recently exceeded a $10 billion valuation faster than any company…including Facebook! 

Is vaping bad for you?

Regular tobacco cigarettes contain 7,000 chemicals, many of which are toxic. Though it is speculated that e-cigarettes expose the user to fewer toxic chemicals than traditional cigarettes, nicotine is the primary agent in both and it is highly addictive. Nicotine causes you to crave a smoke and suffer withdrawal symptoms if you ignore the craving. Nicotine raises your blood pressure and spikes your adrenaline, which increases your heart rate and the likelihood of having a heart attack.  Additionally, many e-cigarette users get even more nicotine than they would from a tobacco product because you can buy extra-strength cartridges (a higher concentration of nicotine) or you can increase the e-cigarette voltage to get a greater hit of the substance.

Although e-cigarettes have been marketed as an aid to help you quit smoking, they have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a smoking cessation device. In fact, a recent study found that most people who intended to use e-cigarettes to kick the nicotine habit ended up continuing to smoke both traditional and e-cigarettes!

Why does vaping appeal to teens?

There are several reasons why e-cigarettes are grabbing the attention of the young people: First, many teens believe that vaping is less harmful than smoking (the packaging does little to convey the risks; it says 5% nicotine, which sounds like nothing, so teens think 95% is water weight or vapor). Second, e-cigarettes have a lower per-use cost than traditional cigarettes. Finally, vape cartridges are often formulated with flavorings such as apple pie and watermelon that appeal and seem less harmful to younger users.

What are the effects of vaping?

Vaping drugs affects how someone thinks, acts, and feels. Some may argue that vaping does not include nicotine, but most do. Even those without nicotine still have chemicals in them that irritate and damage the lungs and other internal organs. Vaping also slows brain development and affects memory, concentration, learning, self-control, attention, and mood. It serves as a gateway drug and increases the risk of other types of addiction later in life. Because this drug was only introduced to the public in 2007, there is limited research on the long-term effects.

If you are vaping, or participating in other addictive behaviors, and want to quit, there is hope! You CAN do it–you can kick this addictive habit and behavior. Start by deciding why you want to quit; own your reason and stick by it. Then, pick a day to quit. Get rid of your vaping supplies.  Avoid your triggers. Tap into available resources like apps, family members, friends, support groups, a therapist, and healthy hobbies. Get the help you need and deserve. I am your cheerleader; please do not hesitate to contact me today 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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Self-Care is for Men Too!

“When you recover or discover something that nourishes your soul and brings joy, care enough about yourself to make room for it in your life.” ~ Jean Shinoda Bolen

Everywhere you look there are articles, blogs, advertisements, and pictures about how women can become more beautiful or healthy or happy. Just as important, but receiving much less attention, is the topic of self-care for men. 

Self-care is defined as the practice of taking action to preserve and/or improve your health. It has a renewing, refreshing, and sharpening effect. There are many practical benefits to regularly implemented self-care: Improved overall health, sharpened mental health, decreased stress levels, heightened focus, greater levels of resilience, broadened creativity, and a myriad of other advantages. 

Self-care has many faces. Women think of chocolate, sleep, massages, shopping, relaxing by the pool… When men think of self-care, they may not immediately picture a bubble bath with essential oils. So what’s a guy to do for self-care? Here are four practical suggestions:

  1. Make yourself a priority. Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe you really enjoy music: listen to your favorite album on your daily commute. Maybe you know you feel better physically and mentally when you exercise: take a few hours a week to get to the gym. Making time for yourself is not selfish, it is necessary to being at your best…which unavoidably seeps into every other aspect of your life! Making yourself a priority does not mean that you sit lazily on the couch, ignore the important people in your life, or allow screen time to absorb your stress.  It means being intentional with your time and doing what will refuel, refresh, and reinvigorate you for another day. Know what brings you joy, and be proactive about practicing or engaging with these aspects of your life. 
  2. Interact with others. Having meaningful relationships positively influences mental health. These relationships will allow you to share aspects of your own life and also escape from your day to day routine. This might mean grabbing wings during game time from Buffalo Wild Wings, going hunting or fishing, grilling or smoking the results of said hunting or fishing outings, shooting hoops at the gym, or a myriad of other options!
  3. Be healthy. Both men and women need to take care of themselves physically; this is self-care 101. By this I mean eating a balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, exercising regularly, etc. It might also include meditation, practicing gratitude, regularly assessing goals/resolutions, and any form of stress management. Additionally, be sure to make yearly doctors’ appointments with both your primary care physician and specialists (where applicable).  Take care of your body and brain and you will be better equipped to perform to the best of your abilities! 
  4. Recognize burn-out signs. We all have them. Maybe you get snappy, easily irritated, on edge. Or maybe you feel exhausted, lethargic, or depressed. Such symptoms may serve as warning signs that you need to put on the brakes and take a personal day. This is where you might return to number one and repeat the cycle of making yourself a priority, investing time in meaningful relationships, and taking care of your physical and mental health. As you do so, the time in between your warning signs and necessary “reset” will lessen because your manly self-care will become more instinctive and effective.

There are several reasons why men do not practice self-care regularly: First, it is not considered to be terribly masculine in our society, and some men worry it will make them appear weak if they take time for themselves. Also, some men might think it is not for them because not many men are promoting it. Lastly, and most commonly, many men may find it difficult to prioritize self-care with work/life being too demanding, or they may not understand the need. 

Self-care is not just an activity you simply schedule into your daily life (though that is a great place to start if you are not currently doing any self-care!). It is a mindset that requires listening to what your body and mind need, and then regularly practicing those things. As you put yourself first, foster meaningful relationships, live a healthy lifestyle, and avoid burn-out, you will see the many benefits of self-care. Women swear by it…and so should men! In fact, I firmly believe that many of the issues that we face in our relationships would be alleviated if we all simply practiced self-care! If you have questions or feel you need assistance implementing self-care into your life, please do not hesitate to contact me or schedule a session. You will not regret making self-care an important part of your life!

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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Supporting A Loved One Through Alcohol Addiction

Each Al-Anon Family Group has but one purpose: to help families of alcoholics. We do this by practicing the Twelve Steps of AA ourselves, by encouraging and understanding our alcoholic relatives, and by welcoming and giving comfort to families of alcoholics.

It can be so difficult to know your place if you have a friend or family member struggling with an alcohol addiction. You may not know what to say or how to help; you may feel like their addiction is straining your relationship; you may resent their choices. While it is true that you cannot force a person to get help for alcoholism, there are various ways you can support them and encourage them to seek treatment.

You have likely heard of Alcoholics Anonymous (or AA). In April, I wrote a post that detailed the basics of Alcoholics Anonymous. I tried to cover everything from what it is, to how it started, its main tenets, if it works, and how it applies to those who do not believe in God. I detailed the strength that comes from utilizing this specialized support group of complete strangers who understand the path of the alcoholic’s addiction.  This is a program of recovery for specifically for alcoholics; Al-Anon, however, is different. It is a program of recovery for people who are affected by someone else’s drinking, whether that be a friend or family. It is one of many resources available to support those indirectly affected by alcoholism. This post is dedicated to how you can support a loved one through alcohol addiction.

There is no one exact formula that will tell you how to support someone facing an addiction to alcohol. Every person is different and, therefore, each person’s recovery process will be unique. Some people may rely heavily on their support system and want to involve you in each step during treatment; others may be more reserved and may only come to you when they need a listening ear or want to talk. The best thing you can do for a loved one who is recovering is to motivate and support them every step of the way. Here are several specific ideas for how you can get involved and offer support:

  • Learn about his/her condition. Understanding that, over time, alcohol rewires a person’s brain and causes it to function differently, sheds light on why he/she cannot simply choose to stop drinking alcohol.
  • Know the warning signs. Some signs are recognizable while others are subtle. Several telltale signs of a potential drinking problem are irrational behavior, lack of interest in hobbies and ignoring responsibilities. (This step is particularly important for those who have not yet recognized the need for help to overcome an alcohol addiction.)
  • Offer to help research alcohol rehab programs and types of therapy. Deciding on where to go for treatment is one of the most important factors in a person’s recovery journey.
  • Attend support group meetings or counseling sessions with your loved one. This will give you insight to their journey as well as guide you in how to handle different situations. (AA meetings are generally open, which means you can attend with your loved one. These meetings offer a great deal of support and advice for living with someone who has a drinking problem.)
  • Attend Al-Anon meetings. Just as those facing alcohol addiction will attend AA meetings, you should attend Al-Anon meetings. Here you will find support as you meet others who also love someone with an alcohol addiction, and will be able to personally work through the 12 steps of Al-Anon. Visit this website to find a meeting near you.
  • Help with the post-rehab recovery plan. Be constant as your loved one navigates life as a recovering addict.
  • Be optimistic. Addiction recovery is a steady uphill battle that will come with victories and defeats. When setbacks come, try not to be critical and face the future with hope. When progress occurs, celebrate it and continue pushing forward.

Family and friends should understand that the recovery process can come with many ups and downs–for both parties. When things get difficult, remember that having a steady support system will make a profound difference for your loved one. Your support will surely influence whether or not he/she seeks help for their drinking problem, will buoy him/her through treatment, and will increase the likelihood that he/she will maintain sobriety after treatment. Your role is crucial!

More than 15 million people struggle with an alcohol use disorder in the United States, but less than eight percent of those receive treatment.  Alcoholics Anonymous is a free resource available to all that will offer tools to both the individual facing the addiction, as well as his/her loved ones. Alcoholism affects everyone, including family members and friends of the alcoholic. This can damage relationships and cause you to feel a wide range of emotions like disappointment, anger, doubt and denial. Although your primary goal is likely to get your loved one help, be sure to get the help you might also need. In many instances, speaking with a counselor is helpful and even necessary. If you feel you could use professional help, I invite you to contact me today or schedule a session. Whether you are the one facing the addiction, or the one offering support, I am here to help you every step of the way!

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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#optoutside

“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” ~ Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Summer is nigh upon us! Stores nationwide have their swimsuits and outdoor pools at the forefront of their aisles. Most places in the United States are warming up and there is a buzz in the air that comes from the excitement summer brings. I want to share some ideas to help you make the most of the great outdoors this summer!

But first, let’s go over the power of being outside. Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post called, “Outdoor Therapy: Nature’s Cure.” In it, I shared that studies are repeatedly showing that being outside has positive psychological and physiological benefits. Ecotherapy (also known as green therapy, nature therapy, and earth-centered therapy) is contact with nature and is a powerful new kind of therapy. This type of therapy with nature has been found to be just as effective against depression as traditional psychotherapy or medication! And the amazing thing about ecotherapy is that it is free. Not only that, but it is completely accessible to anyone at anytime!

I know what you are thinking. I have a job and/or kids and a life with so much to do that makes it impossible to be outside all the time! I hear you. I know that it is not easy to make time to do something elective. Regardless, we need to put down our paperwork, pause our housework, and turn off our computer and get outside. Yes, we have many obligations and responsibilities that demand our attention, and making time for self-care seems like one more thing to squeeze into our overbooked schedules (to learn more about self-care, read this post). I have personally found it therapeutic to walk a trail near my home multiple times a week. I am refreshed and rejuvenated when I get outside, breathe in the air, smell the fresh honeysuckle, observe the dogs and their owners, and feel my body moving (especially helpful since I spend the majority of my day sitting for hours at a time). I can assure you that you will be better off because of the time you spend outside!

The following 55 ideas will jumpstart your summer and up the time you spend outdoors (and none of them require a great amount of time nor a large amount of money):

  1. Walk your dog (or get a dog!)
  2. Count your steps. Iphones, outdoor apps, fitbits, and so many other technological advancements make it incredibly easy to use an activity tracker.
  3. Listen or watch for birds
  4. Look for shooting stars
  5. Camping (or glamping if that is more your style!)
  6. Hike or run a local trail
  7. Chase waterfalls, soak in some hot springs, or visit a local swimming hole, river, or lake
  8. Go fishing
  9. Plant a garden
  10. Pick fresh flowers outside
  11. Pick up landscape photography
  12. Have a picnic
  13. Go tubing, kayaking, or rafting
  14. Visit local farmers’ market
  15. Fly a kite
  16. Set up a hammock and relax!
  17. Have a bonfire (don’t forget the s’mores!)
  18. Go geocaching or letterboxing
  19. Go hot air ballooning
  20. Walk instead of driving (when possible)
  21. Ride your bike
  22. Take up mountain biking
  23. Rent local scooters
  24. Visit a new park
  25. Go on a run
  26. Walk a mile
  27. Explore a new neighborhood or houses under construction
  28. Dance in the rain
  29. Follow a rainbow
  30. Swing on a swing
  31. Play on a playground
  32. Go swimming (and jump off the diving board)
  33. Go surfing
  34. Watch the sunrise or sunset
  35. Try bouldering or rock climbing
  36. Visit a National Park
  37. Take a walk at lunch
  38. Sit on a sandy beach
  39. Plant a tree
  40. Outdoor BBQ
  41. Summer chairlift ride (preferably during the full moon!)
  42. Stroll around the city
  43. Play catch, basketball, kickball, or any outdoor yard game
  44. Get lawn seats to a concert
  45. Stand on a summit
  46. Go boating or sailing
  47. Listen to the ocean
  48. Organize an outdoor scavenger hunt
  49. Color with sidewalk chalk
  50. Wash your own car
  51. Participate in a park clean-up
  52. Try outdoor yoga (for the sunrise!)
  53. Collect seashells or build a sand castle
  54. Sand volleyball
  55. Set up an outdoor movie with a projector + sheet

Which ones will you do first? Consider making a list of these ideas (plus any others you might have!) and crossing them off as you complete them. Put them on the calendar and make them happen! Allow yourself to enjoy the beautiful warm weather this summer.

If you find yourself feeling frustrated with life, discouraged, or lonely this summer, I encourage you to reach for your tennis shoes before medication. Enjoying a healthy dose of mother nature does incredible good for both your mind and body.  I offer walk and talk therapy for some of my clients; it is amazing what can be accomplished when I spend just 20 minutes outside walking with my clients at the beginning of a session! Please do not hesitate to contact me today to schedule your first personalized 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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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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