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.

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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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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.

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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.

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Teen Mental Health: Recognize It, Talk About It, Care For It

Teen Mental Health - Cluff Counseling, Carrollton Therapist1 in 5 teens lives with a mental health condition and less than half are receiving the support he/she needs. The fear of discrimination and being viewed as different by their friends and peers is a large barrier to young people receiving mental health services. Learn the warning signs and be aware of your teen’s mental health.

When you ask a child or teen about mental health, often they will not know how to answer or will not want to talk about it. This may not seem like a big deal, but considering the staggering statistic of 1 in 5 teens living with a mental illness, this is something we must face. We need to be talking about it with our youth! We need to be mindful of the signs and symptoms so we can recognize if/when something may be awry.

One of my good friends of many years recently told me about an interesting conversation she had with her parents.  This friend of mine had suffered abuse as a child and ensuing mental health issues that landed her in a treatment center in our twenties. She told me her dad admitted to recognizing a big warning sign in his teenage daughter–a lack of range of emotions. My friend always feigned happiness. She pretended like everything was okay. Because she was such a good actress, everyone fell for it, me included. Her dad wisely said, “Children and teens are supposed to feel and exhibit a wide range of emotions. If a child is consistently only displaying one emotion, there is a problem.”

Hindsight is 20/20 for these parents. They wish they would have seen the signs. Thankfully there has been enough experience and research done to give you and I a fairly comprehensive list of criteria to be aware of. The following are warning signs of mental illness to watch out for in your child or teen:

  1. Feeling very sad or withdrawn for two or more weeks
  2. Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  3. Intense worries or fears that gets in the way of daily activities
  4. Sudden, overwhelming fear for no reason
  5. Dramatic changes in behavior (ie. if your once-ambitious or strong willed child suddenly loses desire to participate in activities he/she once did and/or is lethargic or empathetic)
  6. Plans or attempts at self-harm, or to harm others.
  7. Drastic changes in behavior, personality, sleeping, and/or eating habits
  8. Not eating, throwing up, or using laxatives to lose weight
  9. Significant weight loss or weight gain
  10. Severe out-of-control risk taking behavior that could cause harm to oneself or others
  11. Repeated use of drugs or alcohol
  12. Extreme difficulty concentrating or staying still
  13. Adrenaline rushes, cold sweats, and/or panic attacks

If you see these signs in your child or teen, tell someone you trust. Ask for help. A diagnosis of a mental health disorder will not define who your child is or their value. They can live a full life with their mental health struggles.

The best advice I can give to someone who has kids–especially teens–is to be aware of their mental health.  Remember, mental health is a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being. Children and teens are our most vulnerable and innocent population. Watch for changes in them.  Do not be afraid to ask questions.  Get in their business. Let them know you care about and are there for them. Adolescents fear of discrimination and being viewed as different by their friends and peers is a large barrier to seeking mental health services. Not talking about mental health increases the stigma around mental health; the fewer conversations we have about mental health conditions, the more these negative perceptions endure!

I hope that learning about these warning signs educates and helps you. Many adolescents  struggle with their mental health, but do not understand what is happening to them or have the words to reach out. We must be there for them! Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions or concerns you may have. If a child or teen you know is experiencing one or more of these signs, talk with their parents immediately. Help with mental health is widely available and my door is always open. Please contact me today or click here to schedule a session.

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

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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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