Alcohol Anonymous: Strength in Numbers

Alcoholics Anonymous

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

~ Alcoholics Anonymous

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

WHAT IS ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS (AA)?

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

HOW DID AA START?

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

WHAT ARE THE MAIN TENETS OF AA?

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

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

DOES AA WORK?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Healthy Brain, Happy Life

Healthy Brain, Happy Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Intuitive Eating: Giving Your Body What It Wants

“Eating today has become this idea that the food on your fork can either kill you or cure you. It’s gotten to a point of almost religious fervor.” ~ Evelyn Tribole

Babies cry, eat, and then stop sucking when they have had enough milk. Children naturally balance their food intake from day to day — eating when they are hungry and stopping when they feel full. But adults have all types of stipulations on when they can eat, what they can eat, and how much they can eat. At some point, we stop letting their internal clocks guide us in feeding our hunger, and instead rely on society’s norms to guide our nutritional intake. Children have something to teach us about what, when, and how much we eat: It’s called following our intuition or intuitive eating.

In honor of March being National Nutrition Month, I want to talk about our relationship with food. There are so many diets today; Keto diet, Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, South Beach, Dukan, Paleo, Vegan, low-carb and Atkins diets to name a few. There are all sorts of “fad diets” out there that eliminate certain food groups, have you count carbs, measure waistlines, and include a range of rules to achieve weight loss. And while [temporary] success may come from these diets, many individuals and dietitians in the country have found that more often than not, weight that has been lost that way does not stay off forever.  

Have you heard of intuitive eating? In 1995, two dietitians in Southern California grew tired of watching their clients see success in weight loss through dieting, only to gain it back over time. One of these dietitians, Evelyn Tribole, said, “We were banging our heads against the wall because the way we were working wasn’t working. We were sick of the insanity [our clients] were going through: They’d restrict themselves and lose weight, but then they’d gain it back and they’d blame themselves.” So she and her colleague, Elyse Resch, went back to the drawing board and their book, “Intuitive Eating A Revolutionary Program That Works” was born.  

At the time, Americans were just starting to realize how tiresome the shame and fear around food and ineffective weight loss was. In their book, Evelyn and Elyse encourage readers to do something that might sound backwards and dangerous:

Eat what you want, with no rules about what to eat, how much of it, or when.

Intuitive eating has 10 tenets, which I urge you, my readers, to read, ingest (pun), and practice. In a future blog post, I will go over these 10 principles of intuitive eating in greater detail and offer actionable steps. For the purpose of this overview post, I wish to focus only one of these 10 tenets, the one that may surprise you the most about intuitive eating: No foods are off limits, and there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” food.

I imagine you are thinking, woah woah woah, this just sounds like a free-for-all. I see where you are coming from and I validate that concern. But step back and allow me to explain. Often times, the reason you and I crave pizza is because we tell ourselves it is a wonderfully delicious sinful indulgence. But if we look at pizza as what it truly is (bread, tomato sauce, cheese, and pepperoni)–not necessarily anything good or bad…just food!–then the guilt associated with pizza evaporates. Sure, you may gorge on pizza for the first couple days of eating intuitively (and preliminary studies have found this occurs frequently for those new to intuitive eating), but eventually the body will tell you it has had enough pizza and wants something else. It may surprise you how quickly your body will tell you to pass up the post-workout donut and instead eat something nutritious!

It is undeniable that different foods have different nutritional benefits. Tribole and Resch are not aiming to tear down public-health initiatives that tell society to eat vegetables. At the very root of intuitive eating is the training to teach you to pay attention to how food makes your body feel.  If you untangle food from the stress, shame, and labels that society has put on things you eat, how do you really FEEL eating that donut or that celery juice? The fact is that while you may fill up on Five Guys, if you truly pay attention to what your body wants, you will inevitably crave the variety and nutrition represented by the “healthy” foods you once had used as punishment in your dieting days.

Intuitive eating means breaking free from the yo-yo cycle of dieting and learning to eat mindfully and without guilt. Intuitive eating is about trusting your inner body wisdom to make choices around food that feel good in your body, without judgment and without influence from diet culture. You were born with the skill to eat, to stop when you are full, to eat when you are hungry, and to eat satisfying foods. Intuitive eating is a return to that instinctual skill.

Intuitive eating is not a weight-loss program. It is not a diet. It is a way of life, a complete paradigm shift with what you eat and why you eat it. It has been found to improve body image, to promote mindfulness practices such as meditation, and encourage exercise — all of which is intended to better attune people to their bodies. This will allow you to mitigate binge- and emotional-eating tendencies…by listening to your body!

Calorie counting, carb avoiding, and waistline measuring are miserable lifestyles. The lifelong pressure to diet wears people down and does not lead to a healthy relationship with food. Though I am not a certified dietitian, I have experience in helping clients struggling with rules and negative beliefs around what they eat. I have seen firsthand how effective and life-altering intuitive eating can be. If you need help working through unhealthy eating habits, I would be happy to assist you and point you to helpful resources. Please contact me or schedule a session today to get started on the path to a healthier relationship with both food and your body.

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

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Living Your Best Life, ADHD Aside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Different Yet the Same: OCD & OCPD

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

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

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

Obsessive-compulsive Disorder

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

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

Obsessive-compulsive Personality Disorder

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

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

Juxtaposition

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

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

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

Treatment

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

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

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Phobias: When Fear Becomes Debilitating

Scared woman covering mouth Free Photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources:

Oxford Dictionaries: “List of Phobias”

The Truth About Men and Depression

The Truth About Men & Depression - Cluff Counseling - Lewisville TherapistAlthough women are more likely to attempt suicide due to depression, men are 4x more likely to succeed. This means that the suicide rate is 4 x greater in men than in women! I believe that talking about and raising awareness about men and depression will hopefully set in motion some necessary changes to our societal stigmas.

Certain stigmas, in our society, have become widely believed despite the fact that they are inaccurate or untrue. Last month I addressed one of these in my blog post about women who face pornography addiction–in hopes to dispel the misnomer that men are by and large the ones to become porn addicts. This month, I wish to speak to another fallacy: that women are the main ones who face depression. Last May I wrote a general post on Depression entitled “Depression is Not a Life Sentence”, Today I want to build on that foundation and hone in on a more specific group suffering from depression: MEN.

There is a wonderful book by Terrence Real entitled, I Don’t Want to Talk About It which addresses this issue head on. I highly recommend reading it if you or a male loved one is battling depression. It is a compelling read uncovering the frightening fact that just as many men face depression as women, but only a fraction get help.  He writes about how these men battling depression often go undiagnosed because they do not want to tell others for fear of no one listening or of damaging their image.

The truth is that everyone feels sad or irritable and has trouble sleeping once in a while. But these feelings pass after a little while–usually a couple of days. Depression, on the other hand, is a common yet serious mood disorder that has symptoms that do not dissipate with time. Depression affects one’s ability to feel, think, and handle daily activities.  To be diagnosed as depression, these symptoms must be experienced for at least two weeks.

Signs and symptoms of depression in men

Just like with any illness or mental illness, there are a plethora of symptoms, but the common depression symptoms include the following:

  • Anger or irritability
  • Feeling anxious or restless
  • Loss of interest in work, family, or hobbies
  • Problems with sexual desire and performance
  • Feeling sad, empty, or hopeless
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering details
  • Fatigue, not being able to sleep, and/or oversleeping
  • Overeating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts
  • Physical aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems
  • Inability to meet the responsibilities of work, caring for family, or other important activities
  • Engaging in high-risk activities
  • A need for alcohol or drugs
  • Withdrawing from family and friends; isolation.

Every man will respond to his depressive feelings differently. Some may exhibit several of these behaviors while others may only experience a few.

Causes of depression in men


Current research suggests that depression is caused by a combination of risk factors including genetics, environmental stressors (like financial problems, loss of a loved on, major life changes, or any stressful situation), and illness (particularly serious illnesses like diabetes, cancer, heart disease or Parkinson’s disease). There is no difference with how men and women arrive at depression–it is a chemical imbalance in the brain. Studies suggest you are at greater risk of developing depression if you’ve suffered a severe loss as a child, an overwhelmingly stressful event as an adult, or you have a family history of depression.

Regardless of how one develops depression, men react differently than women.  When men experience depressive episodes, they retract completely from their social circles. One man reported that he did not want to get out of bed or leave the house, that his depression took over his life. He said, “Men are not supposed to be depressed. Men are supposed to be the providers, the pillar of strength, the one everyone else turns to. You can’t talk about it because…you don’t want to admit any weaknesses.” Men facing depression feel ashamed and embarrassed, which leads them to internalize their struggle with depression, close themselves off from others, and not seek professional help. This greatly affects their work performance, their relationships, as well as their self-image and self-worth. Many men who feel depressed enter into this negative cycle of denying/ignoring their symptoms, isolating themselves, experiencing diminished self-worth, and not receiving treatment. It is likely because of this that men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women!

Treatment for with depression

Now knowing that both men and women can experience depression, let’s talk about treatment. These suggestions are not gender specific. Such suggestions include spending time with friends, family, or coworkers; increasing your level of physical activity (particularly important for men who are supposed to be masculine and strong); breaking large tasks up into small ones; delaying important decisions until you feel better; keeping daily routines; and avoiding alcohol, drugs, or harmful substances. These are suggestions that will help if are not yet ready to receive professional help.

For those that have had enough and are ready to stand up to depression, here is my plea: Remember that help is available! To effectively treat depression, a combination of medication and therapy is recommended–regardless of gender.  If you are struggling with depression, it is okay to ask for help. I want to support you. I want to offer you hope! The amazing news is that researchers has proven that between talk therapy and medications, about 80 percent of depression cases can now be treated effectively–for both women and men! In reality, the risks of untreated depression far outweigh those of taking antidepressant medications under a doctor’s supervision. You do not need to carry the heavy burden of depression any longer. Please, contact me today or click here to schedule a session. You are not alone! Help is out there!

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

Resources:

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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7 Reasons Traveling is Good For Your Relational Health

7 Reasons Traveling is Good For Your Relational Health - Cluff Counseling - North Texas Couples TherapistIn 2013, The U.S. Travel Association surveyed 1,000 adults to discover how much traveling can improve a couple’s intimacy and overall relationship satisfaction. The results were astounding and much more far reaching than they had anticipated! Read on to find the seven ways traveling can improve your relationship today!

Life is busy. Work is stressful, school is challenging, kids are demanding…and sometimes the main thing to suffer is our important relationships, particularly our marriage/partnership. I was recently impressed by this article which gives a surprising suggestion to remedy this all-too-common relationship ailment: traveling. According to the U.S. Travel Association, couples who travel together have healthier, happier relationships compared to those who do not. Furthermore, couples in a romantic relationship report traveling together makes them significantly more likely to be satisfied in their relationships, communicate well with their partners, enjoy more romance, have a better sex life, spend quality time together and share common goals and desires! Who wouldn’t want that for their relationship?!

After reading that article, I found several more like it and compiled this list of recurring themes and ways traveling can improve your relationship. Without further adieu, the seven magical fruits of traveling with your partner:

  • Traveling enhances your sex life. You are bound to have hotter sex after a carefree day spent roaming the markets of Hanoi versus one spent washing laundry at home in your sweatpants. Having sex in a new place increases the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine–the powerful hormone that controls feelings of pleasure and excitement. Oh, and let’s not forget those wonderfully fresh and crisp sheets, room-service, pool-service, valet parking. Basically, an alien space + dopamine + vacation = great sex. Of the 1,000 couples surveyed for the study mentioned in the introduction, more than 77% reported having a drastically improved sex life due to travel. Bedroom bliss could be as simple as booking a trip!
  • Traveling increases happiness. Vacations increase happiness, period. When people go on vacation, they get the “triple happiness benefit” from (1) planning and anticipating the vacation, (2) enjoying and savoring the vacation while they are on it, and (3) looking back and remembering the memory of the vacation. Traveling is like the gift that keeps giving as you savor every stage!
  • Traveling gives you novel experiences. Let’s face it, we get comfortable with life. You know your neighborhood, your coworkers, your culture… few things surprise you these days. But when you go somewhere new, you are given the chance to be refreshed by how and where other people live. Travel presents a range of new opportunities–food, culture, language, history.  Maybe you will order street tacos from a crowded stand in Mexico City, or you learn about appropriate religious attire as you cover yourself in order to visit sacred buildings in Israel, or you will experience the Amish lifestyle firsthand by booking a room on a farm in upstate New York…whatever it is, these novel experiences will give you a new zest for life!
  • Traveling helps you work together. Along with those novel experiences listed above, you and your partner will spend more time than normal together when traveling, and may face challenges together. Perhaps you will get locked out of your Airbnb in Rome, your partner could lose your passports, or your luggage will get lost. Either way, you are going to have to figure things out together and find a way to laugh it off and still enjoy your trip!  Simply traveling together in and of itself is not going to make you a better couple, but learning how to travel together successfully is.
  • Traveling boosts productivity at home + benefits mental health. When you go to work each day with no event to anticipate, you tend to work slower, less effectively, and less creatively. Having a trip on the horizon ultimately improves your productivity because it breaks up the humdrum monotony of life. Having a trip planned offers a much-needed respite from routine and schedules, benefiting your mental health and work performance. “The most important benefit of taking a vacation includes giving yourself a chance to recenter, and realign your life goals,” suggests Anthony Berklich, founder of luxury travel platform Inspired Citizen. “By traveling someplace new, resting and indulging in the local culture–you are re-energized mentally and physically to tackle your set goals when you come home.”
  • Traveling allows you to check items off your bucket list! How many people’s bucket lists include sitting around home all the time? Nobody’s! We all want to see the Coliseums of Rome, the pristine beaches of the Maldives, the Neuschwanstein Castle of Germany, or any of the other million places in between! When you and your honey travel, you are living life to its fullest by experiencing all that the world has to offer…together!
  • Traveling increases chances for relationship longevity. Studies have found that travel offers long term benefits to couples by increasing the longevity of their relationship and sustaining intimacy. Of the 1,000 couples surveyed for the study mentioned in the introduction, 84% of them successfully made it past the five year mark–which is quite an impressive feat considering the high divorce rate and dating turnover we see today.

You may say that a vacation will not cure you of the stresses you face in your relationship. That is absolutely true! Although studies are finding that travel can improve a couple’s relationship satisfaction, booking a flight is not necessarily a cure-all remedy for the trials and tribulations of love. After all, variables such as kids and larger relationship issues can complicate life. My point with this post is that traveling allows you to reconnect, to reevaluate your relationship, and redirect yourselves on where you want to go. Yes, life is expensive and trips costs money, and arranging childcare can be overwhelming, but reconnecting with your partner is worth the cost!

There you have it. Couples who travel together experience long-term benefits, travel helps build and maintain relationships, and it ignites romance and intimacy. In short, travel is the ultimate multivitamin for relationships that you never knew you needed. If you are looking to reignite your love life, it seems all you need to do is organize a much needed vacation! And, as always, should you have questions or if you would like to schedule an appointment to enhance your relationship, please do not hesitate to contact me today!

P.S. Are you wondering where to go now?! (I know, I feel the wanderlust, too!) I read this article about 15 fabulous places every couple needs to visit together. Check it out for some awesome ideas of where to visit next!

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

Resources:

Are You Are Just A Worrywart or is it Something More?

Are You Are Just A Worrywart or is it Something More - Cluff Counseling - Denton TherapistAnxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses affecting children and adults. An estimated 44 million American adults suffer from anxiety, and–even though the disorders are highly treatable–only about one-third of those receive treatment!

Do you get the jitters when you have to speak in front of an audience, take a test, or talk with a superior. To a degree, this is completely normal. But for those with an anxiety disorder, these feelings are persistent, seemingly uncontrollable, disabling, overwhelming, and excessive, to the point where they can be filled with irrational dread of everyday situations and it interferes with their daily life. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time.

If this is you, listen to me–there is no shame! Many people suffer from one type of anxiety disorder or another…even I used to! When I was little, I would fret over everything to the point that my parents coined Bob Marley’s famous beat as my theme song: “Don’t worry, be happy!” The best news of all is that help is available. My hope with this post is twofold: First, to offer a couple signs to help you differentiate between everyday anxieties and an actual anxiety disorder; and second, to eradicate the false notion that having anxiety or a “disorder” means that you are broken.

Let’s start by giving anxiety disorders a face. Anxiety disorders are real–just like physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes. Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental disorders in the United States, and they manifest themselves in many different forms including the following: Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.

I am certain that all of us have either experienced or heard of some of the above conditions. But does that mean you have an anxiety disorder? Although the distinction between an official diagnosis and “normal” anxiety isn’t always clear, here are some signs that may indicate your worries are clinically significant:

  • Sleep problems. You struggle falling asleep or staying awake (this is more than just tossing and turning with anticipation the night before a big speech or job interview).  I mean that you routinely find yourself lying awake, worried or agitated—about a specific problem or even nothing in particular.
  • Stage fright. Sure, most everyone get butterflies before addressing a group of people or being in the spotlight. But if the fear is so strong that no amount of coaching or practicing will placate it, or if you spend an excessive amount of time thinking and worrying about it, you may have a form of social anxiety disorder. Those with social anxiety will worry for days or even weeks leading up to a particular event or situation, and may consider extreme methods to evade said responsibility! Even if they do manage to go through with it, they tend to be incredibly uncomfortable and will dwell on their performance for a long time afterward, worrying about how they were judged.
  • Self-consciousness. We are all self-conscious about how we look or appear to others–especially when we are in the limelight. This symptom may be an indication of an anxiety disorder when your self-consciousness is provoked by everyday situations such as making one-on-one conversation at a party, or eating and drinking in front of even a small number of people. In these situations, people with social anxiety disorder tend to feel like all eyes are on them, and they often experience blushing, trembling, nausea, profuse sweating, or difficulty talking. These symptoms can be so disruptive that they make it hard to meet new people, maintain relationships, and advance at work or school!
  • Muscle tension. Near-constant muscle tension (from clenching your jaw, balling your fists, or flexing muscles throughout your body) often accompanies anxiety disorders. This is the sort of tension that even regular exercise and stretching cannot abate. (Muscle tension of this severity can be so persistent and pervasive that people who have lived with it for a long time may stop noticing it after a while!)
  • Chronic indigestion. Anxiety may start in the mind, but it often manifests itself in the body. A common example is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), in which the individual experiences near constant stomach aches, cramping, bloating, gas, constipation, and/or diarrhea. This is basically anxiety in the digestive tract! (A note: IBS is not always related to anxiety, but the two often occur together and can make each other worse.)
  • Panic. A panic attack can be a sudden, gripping feeling of fear and helplessness that can last for several minutes and be accompanied by scary physical symptoms such as breathing problems, a pounding or racing heart, tingling or numb hands, sweating, weakness or dizziness, chest pain, stomach pain, and feeling hot or cold.  It is possible to be diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and have panic symptoms, but not be diagnosed with panic disorder. Not everyone who has a panic attack has an anxiety disorder, but people who experience them repeatedly may be diagnosed with panic disorder.
  • Flashbacks. Reliving a disturbing or traumatic event–like a violent accident or the sudden death of a loved one–is a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which shares features with many anxiety disorders. (In fact, up until very recently, PTSD was seen as a type of anxiety disorder rather than a stand-alone condition.)
  • Perfectionism. This prevalent and obsessive mindset goes hand in hand with anxiety disorders. This is where you are constantly judging yourself, and have relentless anticipatory anxiety about making mistakes or falling short of your [unattainably high] standards. Some individuals with perfectionism even see fit to punish themselves through publicly slandering themselves or taking on extra responsibilities when they fail to reach the high standards they have placed upon themselves.
  • Compulsive behaviors. In order to be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a person’s obsessiveness and intrusive thoughts must be accompanied by compulsive action or behavior. This may be mental (like repeatedly reminding yourself that things will be okay) or physical (like excessive hand-washing, not leaving home until your makeup is perfect, hair plucking, or repeatedly checking to ensure the oven is off).

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 19 percent of American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder each year, and it is more prevalent in women, in people under 35, and in those who live in North America or Western European countries. According to these statistics, many people experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime!

As I have said previously and will continue to emphasize, having a mental illness like an anxiety disorder is not a life sentence. You are not damaged goods. There is nothing inherently wrong with you. If we are going to take the stigma out of mental illness, we need to believe it ourselves first! This will happen as you recognize your worth and find the courage to accept help. Just a friendly reminder that help is readily available for those with anxiety disorders. There are a myriad of medications and treatments–including therapy from a licensed, experienced therapist–that can help you or your loved one control anxiety. Help is one click or phone call away. Please contact me today!

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

Resources:

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